Upon Secrecy

Upon Secrecy by Selene CastrovillaUpon Secrecy

by Selene Castrovilla
Publisher: Calkins Creek Books
Publication Date: September 1, 2009

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July 1780. Four grueling years into the war, George Washington’s scrappy rebels had become an army to be reckoned with. Now came a real break: France was joining their fight. A French fleet was sailing into Newport, Rhode Island. It carried sorely needed soldiers, weapons, and supplies. But George Washington worried. Did the British know? Would they attack the French? Without this foreign aid, the American cause could well be lost. Washington needed answers, fast. He turned to his most trusted source: the Culper Spy Ring. For two years the Culper had provided Washington with accurate information. The problem was how long they took! Could they deliver quickly this time? Washington prayed they would. Join the Culpers as they attempt their most important – and dangerous – mission. Follow them through British-occupied territory, risking everything in the name of liberty. Can they ferret out the information? Will it be in time? Can they remain undetected and unsuspected? Upon secrecy, their success depends.

Awards & Honors

A Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year, 2010.

Praise for Upon Secrecy

“I love the way Castrovilla gets inside the heads of real life characters and brings them to life. Right away we are pulled into the story of espionage and the different factions of the Revolutionary War become so real. Upon Secrecy will have you on the edge of your seat – even though you know how it ends! Castrovilla is definitely one of my new favorite historians for children.”
— Jelly Mom Book Reviews

Upon Secrecy by Selene Castrovilla, illustrated by Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson, $17.95 Paging students and teachers studying the American Revolution: Here’s a lively, obscure story that will make you sit up. Castrovilla’s slim book about the Culper spy ring may look like a picture book, but the text would be a great supplement for high school history classes. How these double agents deceived the British and aided the revolutionaries is as fascinating for its imaginative technology, including an invisible ink called “sympathetic stain.” The research behind both text and illustrations is impeccable. Ages 8 and up.
— The Denver Post

Selene Castrovilla’s book takes kids inside the Revolutionary War, as members of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring eavesdrop on the British, write secret messages, and fend off highway robbers to deliver them. The gripping narrative keeps the tension alive, while period details and historically accurate illustrations give young readers an up-close experience of the war.
— Homeschool.com

George Washington needs trustworthy, quick-acting spies if America is to rout the British from New York. He directs Major Benjamin Tallmadge to recruit a group of spies, later called the Culper Spy Ring. The Ring’s pivotal member is Robert Townsend, a writer for a loyalist newspaper and a native New Yorker. Who could be more perfect?

Selene Castrovilla’sUpon Secrecy, illustrated in rich detail by Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson, tells the story of the Culper Spy Ring, which conveyed messages relating British activities and plans between Townsend and Washington. With the help of fellow spies Austin Roe, Abraham Woodhull, and Caleb Brewster, Washington thwarted British plans for attacking the French, America’s allies. The French fleet arrived safely, well before the British realized they were duped by false, planted information.

This engaging, well-written book addresses the emotions of the persons involved as well: George Washington’s frustration, Townsend’s guilty conscience at his involvement, and the trepidation of the other spies. One caution for teachers and parents: the book subtly implies Divine direction and promotes nationalism. Properly presented in context with the ideology of the period, however, this is unlikely to prove a problem.
— BookLoons.com

Pre-teens in particular will benefit from the history lessons in two books from Calkins Creek, a Honesdale, PA publisher. Both are by Selene Castrovilla. By the Sword ($17.95) is about the Revolutionary War and the adventures of a young teacher who sacrifices his career to join George Washington’s army, engaging in the Battle of Long Island. Beautifully illustrated by Bill Farnsworth, it is a great way for a young reader, aged 7-10, to learn about the Revolution while being entertained by a first class story. Her other book, Upon Secrecy ($17.95) deals with the end of the Revolutionary War as the French fleet is soon to arrive and bottle up the British at Yorktown. Keeping it a secret, yet knowing of their arrival is essential to Washington and trusted spies aid him. Illustrated by Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson, this too is history at its best for the younger reader.
— Book Reviews by Alan Caruba

I am constantly surprised by how after so many years of learning the Revolution there can still be significant stories that escaped me. Selene Castrovilla highlights one of those tales in her new picture book for middle grade readers, Upon Secrecy… I have no idea why we take so much interest in outright myths like Betsy Ross’s flag or repeats of stories we know by heart (Paul Revere’s ride, the Tea Party, the Delaware Crossing, etc.) when something as stirring as the Culper Spy Ring remains under reported. Kudos to Castrovilla for finding a way to bring a bit of their story to light for younger readers and to Calkins Creek for recognizing something wonderful when they saw it.
— Colleen Mondor, Eclectica Magazineit.

You Say You Want a Revolution?
The American Revolution gave birth to a new country, but now, more than 200 years later, so many stories of this incredible time in history are yet untold. Most of us know about Paul Revere, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and perhaps even Molly Pitcher, but what of the smaller, yet equally important roles played by American Patriots?

Enter author/researcher Selene Castrovilla and her two incredible American Revolution picture books: By the Sword and Upon Secrecy.

By the Sword: A Young Man Meets War tells the true tale of Benjamin Tallmadge’s first wartime experiences during the battle of Long Island, where Washington’s troops were just barely able to escape their ruthless British and Hessian adversaries. Upon Secrecy relates Tallmadge’s later involvement with Washington’s Culper Spy Ring. It was Tallmadge and a “Loyalist” Quaker spy named Robert Townsend who were able to trick the British into defending New York City against an attack that never came; this ruse, in turn, kept the British from attacking landing French troops who had come to General Washington’s much needed aid.

I love both books for a number of reasons. First, they provide just enough information to set the scene for the reader. Each then tells one really good story, within the context of the larger conflict. The language of the stories is well-crafted, full of literary devices, and with an eye for accuracy. We can feel the urgency of the situations. But what’s best of all, in my opinion, is that both stories, while complete in themselves, are followed up with a number of historical notes, time lines, and related resources. Therefore when students ask questions about details in the story, the teacher is armed with some answers. Questions such as What happened to him after the war? and If the spy ring was a secret, then how did the author write about it? and Is this story totally true? are easily answered. At the same time, however, the author provides some pointers on where to go next if the reader wants to discover more on each book’s topics.

I’ve always used a number of picture books in my introduction to the American Revolution to help students visualize the clothing, setting, and lifestyle of the period. In this area these books don’t disappoint. Illustrators Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson (Upon Secrecy) and Bill Farnsworth (By the Sword) visited libraries, historical sites, and costume shops. Period portraits were consulted for illustrations depicting actual people. Paintings for both books were then reviewed for accuracy by scholars specializing in this era.
— Teach With Picture Books



“The necessity of procuring good Intelligence is apparent & need not be further urged — All that remains for me to add is, that you keep the whole matter as secret as possible. For upon Secrecy, Success depends…”  – George Washington

George Washington needed spies.
Information about the enemy was vital.
Learning British military plans was his only chance to level the advantage the redcoats held.
His army had become something to reckon with. They’d gone from fighting for survival to spotting fear in their enemy’s eyes.
Still, the British army was larger.
Better equipped.
Virtually impossible to outfight.
Washington knew that wit, not weapons, held the key to ultimate victory.
Washington’s problem wasn’t finding information. Captured British soldiers spilled secrets. Redcoats appeared on their own, prepared to turn traitor against their king. Even civilians offered to spy for a fee. But could Washington trust them?
A favorite tactic of Washington’s was to slip false intelligence into enemy hands. The same could be done to him.
One mistake could mean defeat.
Washington knew also that his spies needed to live in or near New York – British headquarters. And they needed a good reason to be there.
The British were keen on protecting their territory, and New York was their biggest prize. People who didn’t belong there were noticed.
In August, 1778,Washington turned to Major Benjamin Tallmadge to organize what came to be called the Culper Spy Ring. A native of Setauket, Long Island, Tallmadge had the connections Washington needed and recruited long-time friends.
The heart of the ring lay with Robert Townsend, a New Yorker who wrote for a loyalist newspaper. Townsend was perfect for the job. British soldiers actually brought him information, to see their names in print!
And Townsend was a Quaker.
Opposed to war.
Above suspicion.
For nearly two years the Culpers risked their lives smuggling letters.
Washington was impressed with Townsend’s reports. But pleased as he was by their content, he grew irritated by the long time it took to get them. Bluntly, he wrote to Tallmadge that the information was useless when it reached him.
Vexed, Washington disbanded the ring in May 1780.
But it didn’t take long for Washington to miss Townsend’s reliable messages. In July, a French fleet of over 5,000 troops was due to land in Newport ,Rhode Island. Without this help, the Americans might well be doomed.
Washington worried.
Did the British know the French were coming?
He feared the worst.
The redcoats had the manpower to crush the French, especially if they struck before the fleet organized.
Washington needed information – from a source he could depend on.
There was only one.
Could the Culpers act fast enough?
He had to take the chance.

“As we may every moment expect the arrival of the French fleet a revival of the correspondence with the Culpers will be of very great importance…”

– George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge, July 11, 1780


July 20, 1780 / New York

God, forgive me.
The words flashed through Robert Townsend’s mind like musket blasts against a dark sky.
They were there, always.
When he squirmed in his chair at the offices of Rivington’s Royal Gazette, when he sifted through inventory in his dry-goods store, when he shifted on his creaking bed in the black dreamless night.
Over and over, the words blazed through his head.
Most especially now, in times like this. Sitting across from two British officers in his publisher’s coffeehouse, taking notes on their exploits. That was the purpose of this place – to gather every drop of gossip feasible, and put it into print.
These soldiers thought they were sharing information with a journalist loyal to the crown. They craved recognition, even fame.
They had no idea who they were revealing themselves to.
Forgive me, I beg of you.
He dared not pray that these words cease fire. Forsaking his Quaker faith to help the American cause, he’d known there would be suffering.
If there would be forgiveness, he did not know.
The soldier on the left droned on, competing with conversation and laughter at the surrounding tables. The work day had ended and the coffeehouse was packed. Cloudy tobacco mixed with the scent of coffee. Chairs scraped across floor planks. Boots stomped, sweeping through scattered sawdust.
Robert stared at candle wax drip, drip, dripping; clotting onto the wood table. He didn’t wish to look the men in their eyes. Almost on its own, his hand dipped quill into ink, then shifted back to the paper in front of him, scrawling notes of British military plans.
The plans.
They were what he was after.
One plan, specifically.
For four days he’d headed around town, seeking the information. Did the British know about the French fleet landing in Newport?
He’d seen the British ships being prepared to embark.
But to where?
Robert mustered a smile, forced his gaze at the officer on the right. Casually, he asked if either of them might know where the British fleet intended to sail. Posing such a question held risk, but time was paramount.
To these soldiers, he was Robert Townsend, reporter and merchant.
To General George Washington, he was known by code name only.
Samuel Culper Junior.

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