Christine Taylor-Butler grew up in inner city Cleveland in the 1960s. An avid reader, she wanted to be a writer, but she remembers thinking, “Writers are not real people. I never met a writer.” Math and science became her fallback career goal. “I loved puzzles and mysteries,” she says, and frequently saved her money to purchase puzzle books from the grocery store or the drug store. At the time, math and science were not popular fields for girls or for inner city kids. “Your job was to graduate from high school and get a job at the local post office or the local plant,” Taylor-Butler says. “I grew up in a blue collar family and [got some] pushback.”
What her family and friends may not have realized is that Taylor-Butler is a force of nature, the word “can’t” not part of her vocabulary. Some of the adults in her life encouraged her to dream big, and helped her achieve her goals. She graduated from MIT with two degrees—one in civil engineering and one in art and design. After a decade in the engineering field, a verbally abusive boss caused her to consider a career change. She quit engineering “cold turkey” and turned to writing.
Like her teen characters in The Lost Tribes, Taylor-Butler dove in “head first and passionately” without all the necessary tools. With the help of several mentors and a few conferences, she was soon publishing school and library titles. She became the go-to person for math and science topics because she has a knack for finding a unique point of view. Editors know they can give Taylor-Butler a concept or a title and trust her to find compelling content. Cherry Lake Publishing’s Think Like a Scientist series is Taylor-Butler’s brainchild from start to finish, and she focuses on science in the classroom, the gym, the car, the kitchen, or the garden with fun kid-friendly experiments.
While researching Sacred Mountain: Everest, she uncovered a unique point of view absent from children’s literature at the time. Most sources explained expeditions from an Anglo perspective. On one ascent to map the mountain, Taylor-Butler says, “the British set off an avalanche that killed seven Sherpa. Colonel Hunt, who was the leader at the time, wrote a letter home to his wife that said, ‘Thank God no British were killed,’ as if the Sherpa had no value to them at all.” Perilously close to her deadline Taylor-Butler scrapped her original manuscript that focused on the geology of Everest, and revised it to tell the story from the point of view of the native people. “Mountains belong to the people who love them, who live there, and who are the caretakers,” she says. “I think it was that approach that resonated with readers.” The Society of Midland Authors in Chicago voted it their best children’s nonfiction title of the year.
The Lost Tribes is Taylor-Butler’s first foray into middle-grade science fiction, a fascinating story of five ethnically diverse friends who think they’re playing a video game, but find out they’re saving their scientist parents who go missing while on a secret mission. “I like complex books,” she says. “When I finish I read them again and say, ‘How did I miss that?’” The Lost Tribes began as a picture book, but an editor who read an early draft suggested she turn it into a novel. The novel blossomed over a four-book series. “The dangers of having a nerdy mind,” she says with a laugh.
The way Taylor-Butler’s two daughters look at the world inspires much of her work, and she began the fight for diversity in children’s literature long before #WeNeedDiverseBooks went viral on social media. “Most of what is out there featuring a child of color, any color, is negative,” she says. “The heroes don’t look like [my daughters], and Harry Potter doesn’t have us in his inner circle. I want to show children like them a broader landscape and a bigger place in the world than what publishers and the media [present].”
One summer, Taylor-Butler visited Rogers, Arkansas for a week-long reading celebration at the public library. “I talked about my background and one of the teachers came back [at the end of the week] and said she had a third grade girl who was confused that I’d gone to MIT because I’m African American and she didn’t know that was allowed.” The student wondered if Taylor-Butler could go to a school like that, could she? According to Taylor-Butler, “that is 100 percent why I do what I do. In this century we are still giving the message to kids, don’t dream outside your neighborhood.”
In fact, MIT recently bestowed on Taylor-Butler the George B. Morgan Award for commitment to the needs of prospective students for her work with urban and rural children. “I see kids who didn’t know they had permission to” dream big, Taylor-Butler says. “The most important gift I can give someone is don’t let the job pick you, let the passion pick you.”