by Orel Protopopescu
Do you know any kids who think history is dull? They are bound to change their minds reading Selene Castrovilla’s Revolutionary Rogues, gloriously illustrated by John O’Brien and forthcoming (September, 2017) from Calkins Creek Press/Highlights. This story is rich in fascinating characters, suspense, and surprises— all the ingredients of a good movie. It’s the tragic tale of the traitor, Benedict Arnold, and the British spy, Major John André. Both long for glory but make mistakes that, in John André’s case, prove fatal. In cinematic jump cuts, we flip from one to the other: Here’s André, relishing the intrigue of signing an agreement with the traitor, Arnold, to deliver Washington’s army to the British. Here’s Arnold, “drinking ale and brewing resentment,” as he plots his treasonous revenge on the Congress that failed to give him the rewards he deserved.
By the time André utters the words, “I meet my fate like a brave man,” we grieve for this young British soldier. Not so Benedict Arnold, brooding in his exile in London, whose name became a synonym for traitor.
Selene’s three other award-winning books on the American Revolution were published by the same press. The third one, Revolutionary Friends, explores the personal and professional friendship between George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. By the Sword, her second, follows a young teacher, Benjamin Tallmadge, and his beloved horse, Highlander, through the Battle of Long Island.
Her first book, Upon Secrecy, happened almost by accident. Selene went to visit a sick friend who’d grown up in Setauket. He told her he missed the place. Selene wanted to know why. His answer, “It’s historic,” led to her researching the Setauket spy ring. That led her to Tallmadge.
The editor of Calkin Creeks, Carolyn Yoder, has also brought us Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren by Gretchen Woelfle (illustrated by Alexandra Wallner and published in 2012). Mercy used her writing to go beyond the restrictions her era imposed on women. In spite of personal and political tragedies, Mercy wrote on, befriending great Patriots and winning the admiration of George Washington and John Adams. Hers is a tale of perseverance paired with longevity. At age seventy-seven, she finally published her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, all three volumes and more than a thousand pages!
Another gifted writer was sold into slavery as a young girl. A Voice of Her Own, The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet, by Kathryn Lasky, warmly illustrated by Paul Lee (Candlewick, 2003), details how Phillis (named for the ship that brought her to Boston) became the first published African American poet. The naked, frightened child on the slave ship became the poised, elegant young woman who journeyed to England where, feted by royalty, she signed a contract for her first book with a British publisher. The copies arrived in Boston on the eve of the Revolution, before the boycott of British goods. Would we know her name if they hadn’t? History can be fickle and Phillis died when she was only thirty-one.
“What is history, but life?” Selene asked, addressing a meeting of the Metro NY SCBWI. Before she starts writing, she thinks about the climactic moment of the story, what makes it one worth telling. That’s an approach we all should emulate.
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