At the end of the first Star Wars film, Han Solo sends Darth Vader’s TIE fighter spinning off into space moments before Luke Skywalker fires the photon torpedoes that destroy the Death Star in an ellipsis of light.
In 1977, as 7-year-old Cecil Castellucci was watching that scene in a Manhattan movie theater, she jumped up, grabbed her dad’s arm and declared, “There’s going to be another movie!”
“It was the first time I understood that stories could continue, and that it was someone’s job to tell that story,” she says. “Everything comes back to that moment.”
She went to Europe that summer with her family and insisted on seeing the film in every city they visited. In 1980, when The Empire Strikes Back came out, she spent every Saturday of that summer at the local movie theater, watching it on repeat. And in 1999, she camped out on Hollywood Boulevard for six weeks as part of a fundraiser in anticipation of the release of The Phantom Menace.
Today, as the author of 15 young-adult novels, Castellucci has built her life around telling stories — and her lifelong dedication to Star Wars has paid off. Last year, Michael Siglain of Lucasfilm Press tapped her to pen one of a series of companion novels that came out a few months before 2015’s The Force Awakens.
“To get Lucasfilm to contact me and say, ‘Would you be interested in writing a Princess Leia story?’ I thought I was dreaming,” Castellucci says. Her New York Times best-selling book, Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure, takes place between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, following Leia on a red-herring mission to distract the Empire from the Rebel Alliance’s preparations to attack a newly constructed Death Star.
While Castellucci’s latest novels, Tin Star and Stone in the Sky, are also stories about a woman fighting the power in outer space, she isn’t only a sci-fi writer. She’s written books about punk rockers, guerrilla art crews and hobos. But almost all share a central theme: a young woman finding her tribe.
That’s what she talks about with the kids at Mayberry Street Elementary School in Echo Park, where she’s volunteered to read books on Friday mornings for the past 15 years.
“Has anybody ever felt out of place in school? Has anybody ever had a big passion for something?” Castellucci, in rhinestone cat-eye glasses and ballet flats, asks a circle of third graders as they munch on apples and pears. Hands shoot in the air. Comic books! Minecraft! Supergirl!
“I like being weird!” one girl says. “Me too!” another chimes in.
Castellucci agrees. She collected broken action figures as a kid and spent afternoons in high school watching old movies at New York’s historic Regency Theatre, deflecting judgment from her “mean girl” circle of friends in high school.
But she always found her tribe of fellow oddball artists — in a sketch-comedy troupe she helped start at NYU whose members later formed cult favorite The State, or in her all-girl indie-rock band, Nerdy Girl, which got her signed to a Los Angeles record label in her 20s. Now, in addition to writing YA books and graphic novels, she’s collaborating on a French-language noir opera about hockey.
For Castellucci, it’s all about finding a way to be a kid and an adult at the same time and then passing it along. That’s why she writes stories for children — to teach them that they, too, can decide what their own story will be.