Berkeley author bids adieu to alter-ego Amelia

After 20 years, Berkeley children’s book author Marissa Moss is saying goodbye to Amelia, the protagonist who has inspired 30 of her books. The adolescent girl based on Moss herself as a child has grown up from the fifth-grader first introduced in “Amelia’s Notebook.”

“Amelia’s Middle-School Graduation Yearbook” finds the scrappy teen wrapping up eighth grade, wrestling with her relationship with her sister and best friend and, for the first time, grappling with her Jewish identity.

Marissa Moss

“She’s been in middle school for over 10 years,” Moss said. “It felt like the right way to end the series, to have some kind of nostalgic encapsulation of her middle school years and deal with the uncertainty about the future.”

Moss has written and illustrated dozens of children’s books since she published her first book at the age of 28. After studying history and art in college, she waited tables while sending stories to editors. Her first books were standard picture books that she both wrote and illustrated.

She was inspired to try a different format, however, when she was out one day shopping for school supplies for her son. She saw a black and white composition book and it reminded her of the notebooks she used as a kid. She bought it and began drawing and writing stories in the voice of her 9-year-old self.

The result was “Amelia’s Notebook,” the first in what would become a series of hand-lettered and illustrated composition books written from the perspective of Moss’s alter-ego, Amelia.

Reading the books is like peeking inside the diary and doodlings of a thoughtful kid.

“I wanted a book that represents how kids think,” said Moss, 55. “She’s a normal kid. What makes her book compelling is her voice, her point of view, her humor.”

Moss moved from Southern California to Palo Alto with her two brothers and two sisters when she was 12, and attended Gunn High School. As an adolescent, she became increasingly interested in her Jewish identity.

Moss and her husband are members of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

Though many of her other books have involved Jewish themes — including a series called “Mira’s Diary,” in which the main character travels through time to historical eras like 19th-century France during the Dreyfus Affair and 16th-century Rome during the time of the Jewish ghettos — the Amelia series had been absent of Jewish themes until the final edition.

“I would have allowed Amelia to be Jewish all along, but my editors wouldn’t let me,” Moss said. “The editors felt like I would lose readers if I made her Jewish. This was back in the days before diversity was interesting.”

At the start of the Amelia series, Moss intentionally made Amelia’s family small — she lives with her mother and older sister — to keep the character count manageable, she said. Later in the series, Amelia seeks out her father, who is Jewish.

In the final book, Amelia’s father urges her and her sister, Cleo, to study for their bat mitzvahs. Cleo, with whom Amelia perpetually feuds (Moss admits that her own older sister is not a fan of the books), piously decides to have a bat mitzvah, but Amelia chooses not to.

Near the end of the book, Amelia gives her best friend a chai necklace — her effort to start to understand her own Jewish background.

“I hope that kids get a positive message about bat mitzvahs — even though it’s Cleo, the bad sister, that’s doing it,” Moss said. “I didn’t want it to be too pat and easy, because I think Judaism is difficult. It’s not something to be taken lightly. I wanted it to be a journey for [Amelia] as it is for all of us.”

Moss said that Amelia’s questions about her Jewish identity are an important part of her growing up.

“I think it’s a normal thing for teenagers to start wondering who they are,” Moss said. “You want to feel connected to something bigger than you.”


“Amelia’s Middle-School Graduation Yearbook”
by Marissa Moss (80 pages, Creston Books)

Marissa Moss will join the Bookworms Club for 8- to 10-year-old readers at 6 p.m. April 17 at Folio Books, 3957 24th St., S.F. (RSVP required, www.foliosf.com), and May 2 at Hicklebee’s, 1378 Lincoln Ave., San Jose (details at www.hicklebees.com)

 

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.