A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Colorado Council International Reading Association (CCIRA) in Denver. I had the distinct pleasure of listening to one of Marissa Moss’ talks that included a discussion of her book, Mira’s Diary: Lost in Paris. Despite my interest in Jewish children’s books, I was unfamiliar with her writing and was pleasantly surprised by the information that she shared. To date, Marissa has authored and illustrated over fifty children’s books. She is best known for the Amelia series that she published over a decade ago.
As a Jewish historian, I was intrigued by her desire to bring the controversial topic of the Dreyfus Affair to the attention of a middle school audience. I applaud anyone who makes a conscious effort to unearth historical moments to youthful readers. In fact, everyone needs to be given periodic doses of history. In a room filled with over 30 local educators, I was the only one who knew anything about the infamous Dreyfus Affair. After attending the talk, I purchased a copy of Mira’s Diary: Lost in Paris and had Marissa kindly autographed my copy.
Marissa uses a lighthearted approach to retelling parts of this disturbing story of 19th century corruption and anti-Semitism. Told through the eyes of Mira, the main character, readers follow the diary entries that chronicle Mira’s adventures as she travels back in time. For readers who might be unfamiliar with 19th century Europe, the jumping back and forth in time might be confusing.
As an addendum to the story, Marissa includes an informative author’s note and bibliography. This section will clarify any gaps in understanding. It provides a plethora of facts and a chronology of events.
Not only does Mira reveal some of the key aspects surrounding the political turmoil, she also interacts with several famous painters of this era. Marissa does a wonderful job describing life in 19th century Paris and includes a romantic subplot that might further engage readers. In addition to Mira’s popping in and out of 19th century France, she plays a cat and mouse game trying to connect with her mother who is a fellow time traveler.
Some historical fiction authors use time travel as a means to engage their readers. It provides a fanciful avenue to explore history. However in this instance, the connection between the past and present is a bit hazy. After learning about the ramifications of the Dreyfus Affair and that history is dependent on a series of events, I question whether modern middle school readers will fully relate to these 19th century injustices. Did this mother-daughter duo meddling in past events highlight the importance of making a difference or distract from actual historical events?
As the first book in this series, Marissa leaves the reader bewildered on a few other issues. Perhaps, her sequel, Mira’s Diary: Home Sweet Rome, will address these points. (Due out April 1, 2013) Will Mira’s 21st century life be any different as a result of her time travel experience? How will Mira divide her time between the 21st century and her extraordinary gift of time travel? What impact will future time travels have on Mira’s family?
I cannot help but compare Mira’s Diary to the award-winning story, The Devil’s Arithmetic. In that story, Jane Yolen’s main character was forever changed by her time travels back to the time of the Holocaust. Mira was impacted by what she experienced, but I wonder if her travels will have any long term implications.
In the beginning, I struggled with trying to figure out why Mira’s mother disappeared. Her mysterious departure seemed unnatural and the dynamics of the family’s relationship was strange. After Mira encountered her mother in19th Paris, the callous aspect of this mother-daughter relationship lingered. Mira was intent on helping her mother change the course of history while her mother seemed a bit standoffish. The intrigue surrounding this mother-daughter time travel experience partially negated this sense of oddness. There were rules that supposedly prevented direct contact between time traveling family members. Nevertheless, I am left wondering why a mother would prefer time traveling over spending time with her adolescent children. Once again, I hope that future books will shed more light on this point.
I cannot say with certainty that an adolescent reader would share my middle-aged perspective. That is one of the drawbacks of reviewing literature that is intended for a much younger audience.
After this initial exposure to Marissa’s writing, I look forward to reading more of her books.I hope that the sequel will answer some of my questions.