Meet the Author: Christine Taylor-Butler

Wednesday, Jan 13, 2016
Photo of Christine Taylor-Butler
Most people think writing for children is easy. It is actually harder than writing for adults and not for the faint of heart.
Writing is about craft. It's the creative side of the business. Publishing a book is about business. Let me repeat. Raw, cold, unsentimental, driven by profit and loss margins business.

Kansas Citian Christine Taylor-Butler has written more than 75 books for children. Emerging from her background in engineering, many of them are science books for early readers. Some are for slightly older readers or delve into other topics. Recently she released her first novel for teens, The Lost Tribes, to positive reviews, and she has been named to numerous best-of and award lists for her various titles.

Taylor-Butler has gained valuable insight into writing and publishing from her career, and is happy to share what she has learned in response to our questions.

Your website says that your “writing took a circuitous route that included a New England boarding school, two MIT degrees (Engineering and Art & Design -- I'm the ultimate oxymoron) and a series of jobs that included working for a start-up software company followed by several years at Harvard University and more than a decade as a Graphic Arts Manager at Hallmark Cards.” Can you tell us how you ended up a prolific author of award-winning children’s books after that start?

Books were everywhere in our house and my parents made library cards a priority for every member of the family. I often say that Cleveland Public Library raised me because I practically lived there. I loved writing stories, but children in my neighborhood weren't exposed to writers or writing as a career. Instead, I was encouraged to pursue a traditional path by earning an engineering degree and working in managerial assignments. Once my husband and I began raising children, I noticed that few of the speculative books featured protagonists that looked like them. The solution was to quit my job at Hallmark and dive in without a safety net. It took three years of writing and submitting before I sold my first book and depleted my savings. But it was worth it, and I was lucky. I met wonderful mentors along the way who gave me advice and a few kicks in the rear. That includes an entire village of librarians in Kansas and Missouri, one of whom pointed towards a workshop at Highlights. That workshop is where I met my first editor. Several mentors suggested I use my Engineering background to write nonfiction as a way to stay current in the market while I worked on my novel.

Your website lists your books in three categories: Young Readers, Older Readers, and The Lost Tribes. Can you describe how you define each of those categories and the different ways you approach writing each?

Good question. Many of my publishers specialize in books for schools and libraries. I wanted to make it easier for those visiting my website to find books based on the appropriate age or grade. Young readers are my books where the word count is low and the word selection is limited to the reading ability of the student. Between birth and 2nd grade children are learning to read. In those works I have to limit how many words per sentence and how many syllables per word. I need to explain complex subjects, such as geology of a planet, in language that is easy to digest. For pre-K readers I'm limited to one hundred words and only a handful can be unique. First through third grade might be 300-600 words. For older readers, students are reading to learn. Those topics are covered in 3,000-4,000 words and I'm free to explore the material with fewer constraints on word choice and sentence structure, although I do level them to make sure they're not written at too high a reading level.

Most people think writing for children is easy. It is actually harder than writing for adults and not for the faint of heart. I consult a lot of primary sources for my nonfiction, often reviewing scanned copies of original documents from the Founding Fathers in the National Archives. A publisher once challenged me on a fact citing a scholarly work by another author. I sent a rebuttal showing the original document from the archives which contradicted their research. I won that argument. Sacred Mountain: Everest was the hardest nonfiction book to write. It took a year of research to shape the book and do justice to the people who live there.

The Lost Tribes was a game changer. It is speculative fiction, but includes nonfiction references and puzzles. The book's first rough draft was more than 125,000 words and was my most difficult project because I had to keep track of five children, a cast of adults harboring secrets, different voices and motivations, major and minor plot lines, and a backstory. So while I can compartmentalize my educational work, the novel requires large blocks of dedicated time to "hold the world" in my head. I write multiple drafts then edit out things I needed to know when writing but the reader did not. The final draft was about thirty percent shorter than the first draft.

Your website includes a short animation titled “Business Card,” and the pictured card features the phrase “Stories for Multicultural Children.” What does that phrase mean to you and how did you decide it is the idea you most want associated with your name on your card?

Multicultural is often interpreted to mean "different" or "other". In children's publishing there has been a long standing preference for depicting cultures with separate and distinct lines of demarcation in terms of speech pattern, location, motivation. However, cultures, like children, are not homogeneous.

My business card was me putting a stake in the ground at a time when there were few initiatives around diversity. It was me saying that I was going to write books about a broad range of children who are doing the same things other kids are doing: living, loving, exploring the world, and making goofy assumptions that don't seem logical because of their underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes.

I wrote the blog essay to discuss the importance of incorporating diverse rhythms, not making race the source of every conflict. My own children grew up in the inner city and yet have more stamps on their passport than my husband or I do. One speaks Japanese, the other is fluent in Italian. And yet I go on school visits and still meet legions of children (and adults) who don't know those options are open to them. Not surprising given most books featuring people that look like them often maroon their protagonists in familiar neighborhoods with limited resources. Not the hero and rarely in the inner circle of friends. So multicultural to me means "not more of what you already have."

Can you say any one of your books is your favorite, whether as a finished product or due to the process of its creation? Any favorite moments, at the very least?

It would be like being asked to choose which child is my favorite. There isn't a single book I didn't enjoy writing. I spent a year researching Sacred Mountain, a book about the mountain unfortunately renamed "Everest" by the British. I wrote it with my first editor, Bernette Ford. The published book is not the original draft. I changed the name and rewrote the content after I discovered how poorly the Sherpa were treated by the British in the 1950s. But truth be told, The Lost Tribes is the one I am most emotionally invested in. It's the one story I lose sleep over.

What do you like most about being a writer?

The freedom to explore subjects that interest me. I'm a harder boss on myself than when I worked in a corporate environment. I love math an engineering, but I'm an artist at heart. I can't "not" write. So I do.

What do you like least about being a writer?

I least like the politics and corporate nature of the industry. The decision making often feels removed from the target audience. The author's obligations under the business side of commercial publication is expensive and interferes with uninterrupted writing time.

If you could give advice to your inner young writer, what would it be? Is writing what you imagined it to be when you first decided you wanted to be an author?

START NOW! Don't wait until you're older and don't focus on income as the sole objective. Don't let well meaning people steer you into the wrong career. I love math and engineering. I was financially secure as an engineer. But I'm more content as a writer and a nicer person to be around. My husband and I encourage our children to pursue their dreams. One is studying cinematography, the other Fine Arts and ceramics. Not sure how that happened with two scientists in the house, but our rule is "happy, healthy and fulfilled" should drive career choices. I can claim all three now that I'm a writer.

In previous interviews I’ve seen you say there is a difference between “writing books” and “publishing books.” Can you elaborate here?

I encounter, as do publishers, writers who want to write a story in a single draft then sit back and wait for the imaginary huge check to roll in. Writing is about craft. It's the creative side of the business. Publishing a book is about business. Let me repeat. Raw, cold, unsentimental, driven by profit and loss margins business. Most publishers don't provide marketing dollars, so the author has to create a social media network, put up a website, manage and arrange appearances, and build an audience. Writing AND publishing involves forcing both the creative and analytical sides of your brain into service.

Many readers of this blog are aspiring (-to-be-published) authors. Your website includes a wonderful page titled “Breaking into Children’s Publishing.” The topics listed there: Beginner Mistakes, Getting Started, Publishing Terms, Writing “Myths,” Recommended Reading, and Essential Websites. How would you summarize all of that information for our readers and what is the most crucial bit you want to share with them?

Summary: Breaking into publishing is about craft and building relationships. It is extremely hard work, it doesn't happen instantly, and many of the authors and illustrators you admire honed their craft over tens of thousands of hours and on the backs of hundreds of rejections. If you don't like children, or think this will make you famous or rich, run now! If that warning doesn't scare you, then attend events and build relationships. Learn what it is you don't know (it will be a lot, I guarantee it). Don't ask authors like me to mentor you. We get a hundred requests a week, almost all from people who've never bought our books. Be patient, READ, READ, READ some more. If you aren't reading a book a week, you may not be ready to write one.

One more thing, if you are a writer, do NOT hire your own illustrator. Consider yourself warned!

In the most recent post on your blog, you write: “The reality is that the climate for children’s publishing is changing. The new standard must acknowledge a shift towards authentic cultural diversity in a way that children can be drawn to the work. We need to worry less about creating textbook-quality literary prose to please gatekeepers and worry more about resonating with the target audience so they will become lifelong independent readers.” What does it mean to “resonate with a target audience?” How does an author go about accomplishing that?

Listen to the voices of real children. There is a rhythm there that can't be faked. I once remember Richard Peck saying that we are writing for children we never were. A protagonist's voice is not the "author's" voice. A child in Brooklyn does not sound the same as a child from Los Angeles, or a child from Kansas City, or Houston. So do the research.

I wrote that blog because the editing process sometimes eliminates the breadcrumbs an author has embedded for child readers to follow. Or authors and editors sometimes substitute their own preferences. In The Lost Tribes, the protagonists are from upper class families. They're in private school and a bit spoiled. Their speech pattern isn't going to be the same as a kid from an impoverished urban inner city background. And yet many publishers expected them to sound as if they did to fit the industry's stereotypical multicultural definition. Luckily my current publisher recognized the rhythms and breadcrumbs right away.

What are you working on now? What does the future have in store for you?

The Lost Tribes is a limited series, but daunting in complexity. I'm working on revisions for the second installment: Safe Harbor. I'm also completing several nonfiction books for Scholastic and a science for another publisher whose topic is under nondisclosure agreement. I was accepted for membership in Science Fiction Writers of America so I'm exploring more immersion in that industry.

What role have libraries played in your life (as both reader and a writer)?

I was a weird misfit overweight kid and reading was a refuge. Librarians and card catalogues were my "search engines." Even now I think of them as irreplaceable writing resource despite the internet. There are so many cultures around the world that don't have easy access to literature. We sometimes forget how lucky we are to be able to borrow books at no cost using only a card and trust we'll return it. Libraries are especially important in an economy where families have limited funds for housing and food and can't prioritize a book purchase. Libraries kept me well fed in literature growing up!

Who/what are some of your favorite authors and books?

Listing the ones I love would be an entire blog because I'm fortunate enough to meet many of the authors I admire. Suffice to say my reading interest is very broad and spans everything from picture books to adult novels. However the safe answer is: The Martian by Andy Weir. If I weren't already an engineer it would make me want to become one. It is an amazingly tense but funny problem solving book that speaks to never giving up. Ever.

I do need to give a special shout-out to Chris Tebbetts and Tui Sutherland who discovered my book at a conference and unbeknownst to me read it and offered to write a blurb. That's an author's dream.

If you could bring one character to life from a favorite book, who would it be? Why?

Rich Purnell, the engineer in The Martian who takes vacation then uses it to stay in the office and work on a supercomputer to create a Mars retrieval solution. He's a socially awkward nerd after my own heart.

If I had to choose one of my own characters? Carlos Lopez. You'll see why in Safe Harbor. By the end of the book he really comes into his own in a way that surprised even me.

What's your least favorite word?

"No."

If you joined the circus, what act would you most want to perform?

In another life I would love to do trapeze. I like the feeling of acceleration and flying. I'd join Cirque du Soleil for sure.

Which albums, films, and books are you ashamed to admit you love?

Umm. Umm. Classified information (insert guilty smile here). How about songs by Weird Al Yankovic? Word Crimes, Handy, and Another One Rides the Bus are three of my favorites. Can't get enough of Galaxy Quest, especially Alan Rickman's line on how to battle a rock monster: "Well you're just going to have to figure out what it wants. What is its motivation?"

On books, there is a series that my husband's colleagues got me hooked on and I will never EVER say what it is, because I still can't admit it to myself.

If you had to be trapped in a TV show for a month, which show would you choose?

Definitely not Game of Thrones for sure. Everyone dies in that series. I think I'd fit in on The Big Bang Theory. They desperately need more diversity among the nerd ranks. (Hint to producers!) It's comedy but accurately depicts my friends at MIT.