For nearly 50 years, Gulf Coast-based children’s author-illustrator Berthe Amoss has brought the culture and history of the region to life through dozens of books. Even today the 89-year-old author shows no signs of slowing down as she prepares for the upcoming release of her young adult mystery Mischief and Malice, the follow-up to her 1979 book, Secret Lives. In this sequel, the author again uses the Big Easy on the eve of World War II as the backdrop for her story, which reunites readers with the character of Addie Agnew.
Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint of Ig Publishing devoted to re-releasing YA literature published from the 1930s through the 1980s, will release the title in May. Skurnick initially connected with Amoss two years ago to re-issue Secret Lives. This revived Amoss’s interest in the book and its characters. “I reread the book and it made me wonder what was going on with the characters now,” she said. She quickly came up with an idea for a sequel and started writing. One day, she even hopes to make it a trilogy. “If I can find the time. I know what the story will be.”
Like 14-year-old Addie, Amoss came of age in 1930s New Orleans, so writing Mischief and Malice was like visiting an old friend for the author. “It was so much fun to write and to revisit this character. It takes place in Louisiana, which is such a goldmine for writers. It has such a fascinating history,” she said. “There aren’t many people my age writing about that time period. [Addie] was just about the age I was at that time. It’s pretty easy to know how I felt. It’s really almost my own story. I drew heavily from it when writing this, and I really knew how people felt then.”
As a child, Amoss always loved to draw. In fact, she considered herself an artist, not a writer. “If somebody told me I was going to be a writer I would have fallen over,” she said. She wanted to attend art school, but when it came time to enroll in Newcomb College, Tulane University’s women’s college, her father, a lawyer, insisted she study something more practical. “My father thought [art] was a cop-out,” she said. “I felt deprived of an art education.”
Amoss earned a degree in English in 1946, just as her childhood sweetheart, James, returned from serving in the Navy during World War II. They married shortly after his return. James remained in the naval reserves while attending Tulane. He was called to action again during the Korean War, which brought the young couple to Hawaii in 1951. Later he took a job with Lykes Brothers Steamship Co., based in New Orleans, and rose to the position of CEO. The company sent him and his young family to Europe, where they lived in Belgium and Germany for nearly a decade.
In Hawaii, Belgium and Germany, Amoss took art classes whenever she could. She also discovered that many of the people she met – both Americans living abroad and Germans – were fixated on their careers. They’d often ask her what she “did.”
“What was I? I was a housewife,” she said. “Everyone was talking about their careers. All I ever wanted was a little house and a little husband and a little family and time to draw when I wanted to. But I decided I didn’t want to just piddle around and draw for no good reason.”
So she did fashion drawings for magazines, and wrote and illustrated greeting cards for several companies. “That was really how I started writing,” she said. “I had a friend at the New Yorker and she told me, ‘You have to write. You can’t just illustrate.’”
While visiting the United States in the early 1960s, Amoss decided to take her friend’s advice: she would stop by a publishing house in New York City, work in hand, and “just barge in there.” She arrived in New York, “dashed off a few stories with my drawings” and headed to Harper & Row, “the only publisher I really knew.” The secretary at the time was Susan Hirschman, who went on to become a children’s book editor and to found Greenwillow Books. She asked if Amoss had an appointment. She didn’t, of course. Still, Hirschman took her portfolio and told her to come back at the end of the day. “If she had said no, none of this would have ever happened,” Amoss said.
She returned to Harper & Row that afternoon and Hirschman told her, “Your drawings are pretty nice. But your stories are pretty terrible.” But Hirschman must have seen some promise in Amoss, and showed her how to create a book dummy in addition to giving her some tips about what the publisher was looking for. Despite the initial criticism, Amoss left the office inspired.
Eventually, her family returned to New Orleans. During a family birthday party, she watched as her three-year-old son threw a temper tantrum. He screamed and fussed because he wanted it to be his birthday too – “and there was nothing we could do about it,” she said.
Instead of getting frustrated, she realized she had her first book. She quickly wrote It’s Not Your Birthday and set up an appointment with Harper & Row’s Ursula Nordstrom, “the czarina of children’s books.” Harper published the book in 1966.
Amoss published just two books with Harper before Nordstrom retired. “She really was so devoted,” Amoss said. “She really wanted you to write the book. She didn’t tell you what to do. She had this gift of being able to think like a child and bringing it out in you as well.”
From there, she published The Chalk Cross, a finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and several other titles with Clarion Books. She also released six books through Parents Magazine Press. Because it primarily operated as a book club, it had the funds to publish its titles in full color, a luxury not many publishers could afford in the 1970s. “All of the children’s book authors and illustrators loved to work with them,” she said. “There weren’t many opportunities to print in full color.”
In all Amoss has published more than 30 books, ranging from children’s picture books to YA novels to how-to books with Eric Suben, former editor-in-chief of Golden Books. Throughout her career, she has continued to depict the beauty and history of the Gulf Coast in her work. The Marvelous Catch of Old Hannibal, about a fisherman cat, is set in a town much like Pass Christian, Mississippi, where she spends most of her time these days. “It’s very picturesque,” she said.
The Cajun Gingerbread Boy, one of her most popular books, which won a Children’s Choice Award, heavily relies on the sights and flavor of the region.
“I waded out into the bayou to get the water lilies I wanted,” she said. “I captured a toad and put him in a mason jar. I drew him and painted him and let him go.” She followed this book up with A Cajun Little Red Riding Hood and Three Little Cajun Pigs.
She has watched the industry change around her throughout the decades, especially since the release of the Harry Potter series. “You used to be able to make an appointment with an editor and they’d say yea or nay,” she said. “Agents weren’t all that popular and everything went on in New York.”
In addition to writing a sequel to her medieval fantasy Lost Magic, Amoss is currently working on a memoir about her career. She added, “Things have changed so much. I’m glad I’m not starting out now. It used to be so much easier. Now there are so many writers and books out there.”