First, there was Harriet the Spy and her marbled composition book. Next came the amazing Amelia, creation of Marissa Moss. Long before wimpy Greg Heffley's mom thrust a diary upon him, and ages before graphic novels for kids became popular, Marissa Moss created the illustrated diary of Amelia, who is nine in the first title in the series, Amelia's Notebook, and who is writing and drawing as a way to deal the fact that she is moving to a new state, far away from her best friend Nadia. Amelia also records the annoying habits and attributes of her big sister Cleo, of the jelly role nose. Of course, as a journal keeper, Amelia notices (and records) all sorts of interesting details.
With Amelia being nine at the start of the series, (which has seen three different publishers since it first hit the shelves in 1995 - some of you with older girls may remember Amelia's sojourn with the American Girls Company) and the first book being 15 years old now, the content is very age appropriate. Having been published just a few years ahead of the emergence of the word/demographic/marketing tool "tween," Amelia is just a kid in many ways, and a few of her notebooks have playful themes like how to beat boredom, how to fold fortunetellers (the origami kind) and how to make and keep New Year's resolutions. However, as Moss' character ages, so does the content of her books, which tackle familial and social issues in very low-key, realistic ways. After reading several Amelia books, as well as Moss' new series of illustrated journals aimed at boys, Max Disaster, I see her as an experienced and wise friend who really knows how to talk to kids at their level, and not what adults often think is their level. Moss understands how kids think and remembers what it is like to be a kid. At the same time, she has a remarkable ability to step into her stories, either in the form of older sister Cleo, a parent or another kid who just happens to have a flash of wisdom and good advice, and help Amelia through her problems, showing her how to fix things on her own rather than doing it for her. To me, that is the best kind of parenting and teaching you can find and I am happy to have Marissa Moss here to teach my kids a thing or two.
One of the best examples of this parenting/teaching (a quality I bemoaned the lack of in my review of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) comes in Amelia's Science Fair Disaster, which finds Amelia in seventh grade. Having written over twenty Amelia books, Moss divides them between elementary school and middle school, and this division is a good indication of the topics that will come up in the books. In Amelia's 7th-Grade Notebook, she ponders the big questions like, "Should I wear make-up," "Am I pretty?" and "What does it mean to be a 7th grader?" In Amelia's Science Fair Disaster she is in seventh grade and paired with two classmates she barely knows to work on a group project for the school wide science fair. Ever observant, Amelia notes that "group project" really means "that one, maybe two, kids do most of the work and the others do a crummy job, so you end up with something WAY worse than what you could have done by yourself. PLUS you have the misery of nagging, begging and fighting with the other kids, trying to get them to do their share." She goes on to say that she knows this is supposed to be good social training, but really it seems like a "bizarre social experiment for the teacher's entertainment." Below these words is a very funny drawing of three different teachers discussing the best grouping of students for maximum hilarity.
When Amelia gets paired with the kid who always sleeps through class and the girl who asks a million questions, and who also considers Amelia her new best friend, she is overwhelmed - and jealous of her best friend Carly, in a different class and clearly with a better group. Sadie's puppyish enthusiasm and flattering attention towards Amelia make her feel pleased to be thought of as cool and noticed, attributes she only thinks of Carly as having, but she also is confused and upset by Sadie pushing her way into her life. After Carly is stand-offish with Sadie, Amelia decides to try harder to be nice to her but finds it hard to be nice and accommodate to Sadie's quirks and be herself at the same time. When Sadie, over at Amelia's to work on the project, reads Amelia's very PRIVATE notebook, she loses it and screams at her to leave. It is Cleo who steps in to comfort Amelia, echoing Carly's words from earlier in the story and telling her that she has to be firm, but not rude, with a person like Sadie, saying, "You have to be straight with people. You can't be fake with them." Amelia avoids Sadie and tries to finish the project on her own but can't until, with Carly's urging, she contacts Sadie. "I wasn't mean or angry or friendly or chatty. I was pure business," she says of the phone call. Amelia maintains this attitude throughout the rest of their work on the project and Sadie pulls her weight while respecting the boundaries that Amelia has set. Subtle as this may be, I think that this has to be one of the best learning experiences a kid can have. In life, we aren't going to like everybody and we don't have to like everybody, but we do have to work with people we don't like and we do have to respect them. And, most importantly, we have the right to ask them to respect us.
In another notebook from the middle school period, Amelia's Itchy-Twitchy, Lovey-Dovey Summer at Camp Mosquito, she deals with her first crush on a boy - the same boy Carly happens to have a crush on. When Carly convinces Amelia to try out for a spot working on the camp newspaper, she is given the job of cartoonist along with another camper, Luke. Amelia enjoys talking to him about drawing and the comics they are creating and likes having a new friend. Carly likes Luke, too, but as more than a friend and acts differently around him, to the extent of ignoring Amelia. Amelia begins to feel homesick, not for home but for her best friend. The two girls manage to talk it out, agreeing not to be jealous of boyfriends - should they happen - but things get worse anyway. After spending more time with Luke working on the paper, Amelia begins to wish that he was more than a friend to her. She and Carly declare a truce and decide to leave it up to Luke to prove which one of them he likes more by waiting to see who he asks the the dance. While waiting it out, Amelia overhears her college-aged counselors talking about how hard it was to tell if a guy liked you when they were younger. This is an eye opener for Amelia and she shares it with Carly, which eases the blow a bit when Luke shows up to the dance with another girl.
I can't tell you enough how important and wonderful I think Marissa Moss' Amelia books are for young girls and I hope that parents out there with thoughtful, sensitive daughters will find these books and share them with their children. With the rise in popularity of graphic novels and mangas, and the new, very reasonable price of $8.99 for a hardback edition of an Amelia book, these are reasonably priced and perfect for collecting. I know that, despite my love of art and illustration, I often feel rankled by spending $8 or $9 for a graphic novel or manga because I know how fast my kids will read through it. For that much money, I want them reading a book for at least two or three hours! However, my attitude, which I am sure many of you share, needs serious adjustment. Graphic novels and manga are here to stay and will only continue to increase their presence on the shelf at bookstores and libraries. In this digital age when many people, adults and kids, read books on electronic devices, graphic novels and mangas still have a huge presence in the world of paper books and will continue to. Of course, many of these books (including the Wimpy Kid books) started as internet comics and continue as such, but sales have proven that kids still want these books in their hands and they increasingly want to consume their literature with lots and lots of pictures. All I can assume and hope is that these kids are reading their graphic novels and mangas over and over and really getting their money's worth. I am sure that readers of Amelia's Notebooks will do exactly that!