I’m delighted to be interviewing one of our own STEM Tuesday team members, the fabulous Christine Taylor-Butler!
Christine Taylor-Butler is the author of more than 80 fiction and nonfiction books for children. A graduate of MIT, she holds degrees in both Civil Engineering and Art & Design. Her current project is the speculative sci-fi fantasy series: The Lost Tribes. Her educational publishers and clients include Scholastic, Children’s Press, Pearson, Heinnemann, Cherry Lake, Lee and Low, Sterling and her favorite publisher: Move Books.
Christine has been a panelist and moderator at World Science Fiction Convention, North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFIC), ConQuest, Boskone, DragonCon, Snake River, and many others. In addition she has spoken at the American Library Association (ALA), National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Assembly on Adolescent Literature (ALAN), Missouri Writers Guild. She has served as a past literary awards judge for We Need Diverse Books and Society of Midland Authors.
She is an inaugural member of SteaMG – an alliance of middle grade science fiction authors.
She wrote this really cool book about genetics: which we’ll be talking about below.
What do you find fascinating about genetics?
Oh – where to even begin with that. I’m a nerd, and lately people talk about STEM as if it is primarily computer coding. But genetics is also a type of mathematical coding that makes up every living thing on the planet. It’s not only the chemical building blocks of life in humans, but in animals, in plants, in bacteria and viruses. Although the foundation of genetics, DNA and RNA, for example stays surprisingly consistent among a species, the combinations of those codes are constantly changing and adapting. There is always something new being discovered every day. And those discoveries are being used to create medicines or to provide the clues needed to keep people from getting sick.
What is it important to learn about genetics and biology?
My mother always taught me that you should pursue knowledge for the sake of it, not just for a career. People approach science as if preparing for a job assignment, or to pass a test. But that’s not what learning is about. Learning information outside of our primary interests helps us understand what’s going on in the world. For instance, the news has been filled with discussion of the pandemic and the ability of the Covid-19 virus to mutate. That’s genetics and biology. Understanding how cells replicate using the building blocks of life and how the codes can change over time.
A good example of studying genetic changes in people is NASA’s research with astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. They are identical twins. That means their genes are also identical. Scott spent a year in space. Mark stayed on Earth during that time. Scientists then studied how Scott’s genetics had changed compared Mark’s. Some of Scott’s gene’s changed but returned to normal when he came home. Others did not.
But closer to home, sometimes learning about genetics and biology is as simple as providing answers for why you don’t look exactly like your parents or siblings. Depending on what genes are passed down through your ancestors, there’s a lot of variation that can happen and that’s actually a good thing.
Can you give us three things that you hope kids will learn from your book.
First – let me give a shout out to women. When asked to write this book I was told to focus on “discoveries” and “discoverers.” But when I turned in an outline I was told to focus primarily on the men. Yes. That’s not a joke. So I said “okay” and then wrote the book by including as many women as I could fit in the word count to counter the idea that men were always ahead of the curve. There are some glaring omissions in the way we teach the history of science. For example, we know that James Watson and Francis Crick received the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA were two strands in the shape of a spiral (also known as a helix). But their discovery was actually made by a woman, Rosalind Franklin. Her lab assistant didn’t like working with a woman so he stole her notes and photographs and secretly gave them to Watson and Crick. Another example is Nettie Stevens. In 1842 scientists discovered chromosomes, which are packets of DNA, but didn’t know what they did. Stevens made the connection in 1905. She discovered that chromosome pairs determined an animal’s biological sex at birth. She continued corresponding with her professor, Thomas Hunt Morgan, who began experimenting with fruit flies because the flies only had four pairs of chromosomes to track. He is given credit for mapping how chromosomes changed from parent to child. I even cover Dr. Mary-Claire King who discovered the gene that causes cancer in women. Companies tried to steal her research. One company filed a patent on the gene. They charged $3,000 every time a woman was tested for the gene with no money going to Dr. King. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court had to put a stop to that. Now there’s a law that says genetic material can’t be patented. And lastly, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn sho discovered how an enzyme called telomerase is a factor in aging and that stress and trauma can make people age prematurely.
Second – understanding genetics helps to explain why we have laws that say you can’t marry a close relative. Scientists like Darwin noticed that plants that self-fertilize were less healthy. That’s because each time the plant is recycling the same DNA components. Scientists learned the same thing applies to people and animals. With all living things, it’s actually healthier for offspring to have DNA from more than one family line.
Third – We don’t know everything there is to know, even about our own bodies. In 1990 scientists created the Human Genome Project to create a map of our genes. It was finally completed in 2021. But that map was only created from a small group of volunteers. As the world changes and people adapt, we’re still learning about what every part of our genetic sequence does and how it impacts our health, even how long we live.
You’ve written a lot of series for different publishers. Do you get to pick the topics in those series or are they assigned?
It’s a bit of both. Sometimes I find something interesting I want to explore and suggest it. More often than not, especially in educational publishing, the publisher has a series already in place and have topics they want me to research. The research is still intensive, but there’s a format I can follow in terms of word count, number of chapters, side bars and interesting facts to sprinkle throughout. Even so, I write those titles looking to include what’s not widely known in other texts. I tell students an “A” paper is surprising a teacher with a few fascinating facts they didn’t already know.
One of my most fun projects was when working with Editorial Directions, a former packager used by several publishers. Their client needed a template for a science book that other authors could follow for their own topics. I was given free rein to design a series template from scratch for “Think Like A Scientist.” For the prototype I included experiments young children could do in a gymnasium. I discussed how famous scientists had ideas that were often wrong but found the right answers through experimentation. I then guided students in conducting their own simple experiments to prove or disprove their ideas using the steps of the scientific method.
Can you give any tips to writers who want to break into nonfiction children’s books? Should they start with educational publishers like you have done?
My answer today is a lot different than it would have been fifteen years ago. Before I would say “yes.” But now my answer is “maybe.” Educational publishers are an amazing way to build up a portfolio of titles if you enjoy research, documentation and deadlines. I remember being asked to write 13 books in the span of 5 months (American History and Health and the Human Body). Those books are still in print and although they were work-for-hire (no royalties) they paid really well.
But here’s the caveat now – educational publishers across the board in the educational market are paying a lot less than they did 15 years ago. In fact, my largest client is now offering a third or less of the previous rate with a much tightened timeline. So I have declined to work on future titles for them and I worry what low pay means for the accuracy of the content. Authors should know their worth and calculate the amount of time required to research and write a book correctly. Ideally, work-for-hire should pay at flat fee that mirrors the initial advance on a royalty paying book. But with so many people wanting to break into the business it’s not uncommon for a publisher to contact authors and offer $150 (that’s not a typo). One offered $700 for a lengthy researched book. And yet another publisher asked if I would consider writing a 12,000 word book on 50 African and African American historic figures. I explained that is fifty different research projects in a single book and asked what the compensation was. They wanted to pay $1,200 with no royalties (10 cents per word). I spent a half hour on the phone explaining why any author he hired would simply regurgitate Wikipedia. I am told he took my words to heart and significantly raised his rates.
Don’t discount pitching an idea for a picture or chapter book to a trade publisher. There’s so much more interest in STEM now than before that we’re not limited to educational publishers. The budgets for those books are bigger but it may take an agent or networking to be invited to submit. Don’t discount smaller, but well known publishers that don’t require an agent submission. Look at their list for the most recent two years to get a feel for what they’ve been publishing and then find out which editor was responsible for those books before contacting them. And as always, conferences around the country may yield clues.
So it’s not either one or the other, but both. But don’t sell yourself short. Take care of yourself and the reader. Build your portfolio with high quality works but with a publisher that respects your talent and your time.
What are you working on now?
I recently completed three titles in Chelsea Clinton’s Save the….(animals) series: Tigers, Blue Whales and Polar Bears. There was so much I didn’t know about the impact of human activity on animal species and how we are often the biggest threat to their survival through our actions (hunting, loss of habitat, climate change, pollution). But I’m hoping readers will use the books as a starting point for their own observations about the world. After writing Tigers, for instance, my observations of my own cats became much sharper in focus. The way kittens learn from older cats. The way birds and squirrels in my neighborhood interact, and how the youngest play in groups. I can see what I didn’t see in earlier observations before these books.
I also completed a short story that is STEM based in the YA anthology “The Hitherto Secret Experiments of Marie Curie.” In researching her teenage life, I realized there were similarities to the current Ukrainian situation and her life under Russian occupation. So we were asked to imagine what fantastical things she might have done and I gave my story, “Retribution,” a sci-fi theme using a black body experiment that absorbs all light. Going forward, I’ll be working on the final installment in The Lost Tribes series.
If you could spend the day with any scientist or engineer, who would it be and why?
Honestly, there are so many to choose from, I would want to spend a day with a NASA scientist. They have educational specialists who work with schools and libraries all the time. I recently had the pleasure of being on a panel with Dr. Jeanette Epps who is an aerospace engineer and is set to fly to space in 2024. I’d met her briefly years before but this was the first time I’d had an opportunity to talk to her. She holds such a wealth of knowledge about approaches to science and learning what things we need to consider to help the human body adapt when in space environments. Also fun stories about how space exploration leads to inventions we use now on Earth. I also watched her really engage with children at a conference. So if I had the option, and in honor of my late uncle who worked for NASA and once encouraged me to consider that as a career, I’d want to spend a day with Dr. Epps.
Christine Taylor-Butler and Astronaut Dr. Jeanette Epps
WOW! Spending a day with Dr. Epps would surely be amazing! Thanks for all of the amazing STEM books you’ve written, Christine. We can’t wait for your new ones to publish. GO STEM!