By Michael Berry
After 20 years and more than 5 million copies sold, Marissa Moss‘ “Amelia’s Notebook” series has arrived at its concluding chapter.
The Berkeley writer is bringing her feisty, hand-drawn creation back to its small-press roots, publishing “Amelia’s Middle-School Graduation Yearbook” through her own children’s press, Creston Books.
Moss, 55, said she took her inspiration for Amelia’s story from a composition book she originally intended for one of her three sons. Although she had already published a number of picture books, she decided to experiment with a new combination of hand-written prose and pictures to tell the story of a fourth-grade girl trying to figure out a move to a new school.
“When I did the first book, there weren’t graphic novels for kids or the ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ kind of stuff,” Moss said. “‘Amelia’ was a real anomaly. I did it because that was the way I thought. It was based on the notebook I had as a kid.”
As lively and attention-grabbing as “Amelia’s Notebook” was, Moss had a difficult time convincing any New York publisher to buy the book.
“They said it was just too odd. Libraries wouldn’t know how to catalog it, bookstores wouldn’t know where to shelve it, and they turned it down.”
Moss eventually turned to Tricycle Press, the then-new children’s imprint of Berkeley’s Ten Speed Press.
“They were willing to take a chance on it because they didn’t know any better,” she said. “They didn’t have a set idea of what a book had to be.”
“Amelia’s Notebook” earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly and received a 1996 Choices Award from The Association of Booksellers for Children. Subsequent installments in the series have been designated a Children’s Choice by the Children’s Book Council and won a Parent’s Guide Fiction Award.
“‘Amelia’s Notebook’ has been on our shelves for years,” said Valerie Lewis, co-owner of Hicklebee’s, a children’s bookstore in San Jose. “It is our go-to pick when teachers are talking about diaries and journals and when young readers come in asking for them. It is accessible in that it shows anything is possible when writing one’s own diary: writing out of the lines; drawing out of the edges, illustrating as well as writing a daily account of one’s life; including happy, sad, uneasy, optimistic, frightening, big, small parts of a day.”
The more than 30 other titles in the series include “Amelia’s Science Fair Disaster,” “Amelia’s Friendship Survival Guide” and “Amelia’s Boy Survival Guide.” Moss is the author of more than 50 books, including “Rose’s Journal: The Story of a Girl in the Great Depression,” “Mira’s Diary: Home Sweet Rome” and many non-series books.
When American Girl published an excerpt of “Amelia’s Notebook,” the piece generated more mail than any other story in the magazine’s history. American Girl bought the series’ backlist from Tricycle for an unprecedented $3 million and began publishing two new titles per year. After American Girl was bought by Mattel, the rights were then sold to Simon & Shuster, who allowed Amelia to transition into middle school.
The journal format is part of what has kept the Amelia series vital for 20 years.
“You have an immediate intimacy when you read somebody’s journal,” Moss said. “There’s a barrier that’s lifted that makes you very close to the person that’s writing. I wanted that connection to my reader.”
Moss said she wanted the Amelia books to actively inspire readers to keep their own journals.
“Sometimes I think in words and sometimes I think in pictures, and I really wanted to use that. I think that’s the way we all think, but once we start school and learn how to read, we’re encouraged not to draw and not to think visually, even though we’re an incredibly visual society. We somehow don’t validate that in education.”
As she’s moved from fourth grade to eighth, Amelia has matured, of course. Moss said that what has been constant is the character’s creativity and her sense of humor. What’s changed is the complexity of her friendships in middle school.
“I think adults tend to forget how important those friendships are. They really are huge in a child’s psyche, and for a good reason. A lot of what Amelia is dealing with is those kinds of social issues, and they certainly got a lot more complicated in middle school.”
Moss has mined her own life for plot points suitable to Amelia. “Practically everything that happens to her happened to me,” she said, “and I just changed details to make a better story.”
Over the years, Moss’s three sons served as first readers and made suggestions about what trends were cool or not. Now their social circle includes fans of their mother’s books.
Moss said, “The people who grew up with Amelia are exactly my sons’ ages. So they have girlfriends who read [her], which is pretty funny.”
Moss said that children’s publishing itself has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. “It’s way more corporate [now]. When I started out there were maybe 30 publishers and now there are, what — five? It used to be that if you sold 10,000 books a year, that was great. Now that’s nothing.”
In response to these trends, Moss founded Creston Books in 2013. “I thought I could try doing something that would allow for the kinds of books that New York publishing won’t do.”
Moss reads unsolicited manuscripts, and half of Creston’s list is comprised of debut authors. Creston also publishes titles by well-established children’s book veterans, including work by Dennis Cazet and Julius Lester.
Now, however, the focus is on Amelia’s final adventure. Moss said, “Since Amelia started with a small press, I thought the series should return to its small press roots for the last book, especially since Creston was started in response to the closing of Tricycle. It seemed poetic somehow, and when I explained this to my editor at Simon & Schuster, she understood completely.”
Creston’s promotions for the 20th anniversary include a writing contest and a downloadable Amelia’s 20th Anniversary Birthday Party Event kit for stores to use.
Because it is the last in the series, Moss said she sees “Amelia’s Middle-School Graduation Yearbook” as “kind of a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane,” with call-backs to events and characters from other books in the series.
“I get a lot of mail from young women who are in their twenties who grew up with Amelia and say, ‘This was my childhood.’ This is a tip of the hat to them.”
Even though the series has reached its finale, Moss said she feels that Amelia will endure.
“It’s sad, and I will miss her, but I have to say I have been so touched and moved by the outpouring from her readers. It’s really gratifying because I feel like I’ve created a character who will live on.”
Moss will appear on the panel “Making Marvelous Middle-Grade Fiction,” Sat. June 6 at 10 a.m. at the Bay Area Book Festival. (The panel will be in the Berkeley Public Library meeting room). She will also appear June 21 at 2:30 p.m. at a story hour hosted by Books Inc., 1760 Fourth St., Berkeley
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