Marissa Moss has been writing stories and drawing pictures to go with them for as long as she can remember. She sent her first book to publishers when she was nine, and although it wasn’t published, she never gave up the dream of seeing her words and pictures in print. “I loved the power words gave me. If I was mad at my older sister, I would invent someone just like her in my story and make bad things happen to that character. Then, to prove I could be nice, I’d rescue that character and make a happy ending.”
Moss was a high school student when she landed her first illustrating job. A local author, who couldn’t afford to pay much, asked Moss’s art teacher if he had a student who drew well enough to liven up his book. Moss got the job. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1979 and studying art history in graduate school for two years, Moss attended the California College of Arts and Crafts to learn how to break into publishing. She submitted stories and drawings to editors for five years, accumulating a shoebox of rejection letters before securing her first illustration contract with a major publisher (One, Two, Three & Four. No More? by Catherine Gray, Houghton Mifflin, 1988).
Moss published several other books before her most famous character, Amelia, came to her. “I got the idea for Amelia’s Notebook when I was buying school supplies for my son. I saw a black and white splotched composition book that reminded me of a notebook I kept when I was nine. I took it home and wrote and drew what I remembered mattered to me then. Amelia was what came out.”
Moss mines ideas from her own childhood or things she happens to notice. “Ideas come up all the time and I keep a notebook with me so I can write them down and capture them.” Moss’s notebook has words and pictures, like Amelia’s, but it’s smaller for convenience.
The notebook theme is not unique to Moss’s Amelia stories. Four of Moss’s historical journals are based on girls from different periods in American history—the pioneer days, Colonial days, the years of European immigration, and the Great Depression. Moss read over 100 books for each journal, compiling true events from actual diaries into her stories, bringing her characters to life. Like the Amelia books, Moss’s illustrations pepper the pages with a mixture of humor and historical fact.
Galen: The Life of a Boy in Imperial Rome (Silver Whistle, 2002) is the first book in her Ancient World Journal series. “The ancient world has always held special fascination for me. . .I was lucky enough to live in Rome for a year so I could do all the research I needed to bring to life the daily details of the period.” Although the character, Galen, is fiction, all of the stories he tells are true.
Moss turns to history again for Mighty Jackie (Silver Whistle, 2003), her third book about women with unconventional occupations. According to Moss, “Jackie Mitchell was the first woman to be signed to play in the minor leagues. In her first game, she struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. That also made it her last game.” Brave Harriet (Silver Whistle, 2001) tells the true story of the first woman to fly across the English Channel, and True Heart, Silver Whistle, 1999) is about a woman who loads freight on a train at the turn of the century, and later becomes an engineer.
After Moss completes a manuscript, she asks her sons, Simon, age 14, and Elias, age eleven, to be her first readers. “When I hear them laughing, I know I’ve done something right.” Moss’s youngest son, Asa, age six, will have his chance to critique future books, but according to Moss, “was very proud to have Amelia’s School Survival Guide dedicated to him.” Even Moss’s husband, an art history professor, assists Moss. “Harvey’s field is French Medieval Art, in particular illuminated manuscripts, so he’s a big help when it comes to talking about visual narrative.”
Given the success of Moss’s Amelia journals, it’s only natural for her boys to lobby for a boy notebook. According to Moss, “Max’s Logbook (Scholastic, 2003) is my response to them. . .It’s written on grid paper and records the experiments and inventions that Max is working on, with his life written in around the edges.”
Moss receives “tons of fan mail,” but her favorites are the ones that describe how her books inspire children to write.
I want to become a writer, just like you. I love Amelia so much! She (or should I say you?) has inspired me to do more writing and improve my drawing skills. Ellie, your biggest and oldest Amelia fan