by Orel Protopopescu
“The end is in the beginning,” said Selene Castrovilla, quoting T. S. Eliot at the Metro NY SCBWI Tuesday Night Professional series on March 10, 2015. Selene spoke to a rapt crowd about the joys and challenges of writing non-fiction for children.
When Selene starts any book, whether about a famous person or an invented character, she thinks about the climactic moment of the story, what makes it one worth telling. A book by Josephine Nobisso, John Blair and the Great Hinckley Fire, inspired her to try her hand at non-fiction. Here was a heroic moment in history that few people knew about. Selene wanted to find such a moment, but first she had to find her subject. It came, serendipitously, when she was visiting a sick friend from Setauket. He no longer lived there, but he missed the place. Selene wanted to know why. The answer, “It’s historic,” led to her first non-fiction picture book, Upon Secrecy, about the Setauket spy ring.
Humanity is at the center of all of her work. Her way into a story is always through people. Selene may fall in love with her characters, a feeling that develops as she immerses herself in their history, a process that takes a long time. That is “the burden and glory” of writing for children. “What is history, but life?” Selene said. If you tell children “something unexpected” about our history, they will be intrigued. She shared her research process, but even more important, she showed the audience how these stories caught fire in her imagination. She credits Carolyn Yoder, her editor at Calkins Creek, as well as the Chautauqua and Highlights retreats, for life-changing experiences that jump-started her career and keep it humming. Trusted mentors like Carolyn Yoder and Jackie Woodson gave Selene “permission” to persevere. Selene writes from “image to image, like a movie,” and the images she shared with those privileged to hear her, will continue to resonate in their own work.
Selene Castrovilla, is an award-winning author of books for children and teens. Her third book with Calkins Creek/Highlights, Revolutionary Friends, is a Booklist Top Ten Biography for Youth (+ starred review), a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, a Eureka! California Reading Association Honor Book and an International School Librarians Honor Book. Her third teen novel, Melt, was recently released by Last Syllable Books. Selene holds an MFA in creative writing from New School University and a BA in English from New York University.
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Orel Protopopescu writes poetry as well as books for children. She won the Oberon prize in 2010. What Remains, a chapbook (2011) followed. Thelonious Mouse (FSG), her most recent picture book, was an SCBWI Crystal Kite winner, 2012. A Word’s a Bird, her bilingual poetry app for iPad, is an SLJ “ten best” children’s app, 2013.