Kansas City author Christine Taylor-Butler is an advocate for more diversity in children’s and young adult literature. She has written more than 70 books, most of them for Scholastic, the massive publisher of books and educational materials for kids. Taylor-Butler spoke with me about her newest book, The Lost Tribes, and how she quit her management job to be a full-time writer.
Janovy: You've published a lot of books, but you already had one career before you started writing. How did you end up with this prolific second career?
Taylor-Butler: I wanted to be a writer when I was little, but writers are not real people – they’re Dr. Seuss. So, I was encouraged to get a real job, so went to school for engineering and while I was there got a degree in art and design and worked for Harvard University, then moved to Kansas City and worked for Hallmark for 11 years. I still wanted to be a writer. One day I quit and said, "I’m going to write children’s books."
Janovy: But there's a difference between writing children’s books and publishing 70-plus books.
Taylor-Butler: I approached it like an engineer and had a spreadsheet and every publisher and what they published, and sent work out. It was three years of rejection and not realizing some of what I was writing probably never should have seen the light of day. But publishing is very relationship-based also very political, so I spent three years learning the ropes and then met my first editor at a conference who had a contract with Scholastic.
That became a niche for me: How do you write nonfiction about a complex subject for a kid at preschool to third-grade level. I became really specialized in learning: how many words per sentence, how many multi-syllabic words, how to do a progression — the earth is part of solar system, the solar system is (this) — so the student is actually learning. Now I’m writing true books. So I’ve gone from writing 300- and 100-word books to three- and four-thousand word nonfiction books for upper elementary.
Janovy: Your most recent book is “The Lost Tribes.” It’s about a kid and his friends who go on this adventure that’s a little bit mystery, a little bit of a dangerous adventure. For me it had all the best elements of the old Archie cartoons on TV, but also "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Star Trek." It’s published by Move Books, which is new publisher. It says its mission is to cultivate a generation of boys who are recreational readers, to change the way boys look at reading and excite them with adventure, fantasy, mystery and humor. How does "The Lost Tribes" accomplish this?
Taylor-Butler: You’d be surprised, maybe one in five boys reads for pleasure and the others don’t. I think as students are moving out of elementary school we beat the joy out of them. I wanted to write something fun and effortless. But also I’m a child of science fiction. My dad was a "Star Trek" fanatic, then "Star Wars" came along, and I’m married to a guy like that. So I wanted to write about a group of kids who are ordinary, or so they think, put on this fantastical adventure.
Because I’m a nerd, if you’re reading closely, a lot of what I’m writing about, if a boy or a girl wanted to go look it up, it’s a real thing. If they’re dialing a GPS location to go to Easter Island, it’s the real latitude and longitude. Where it’s fantastical you know it’s not real — you can’t beam to a place and beam back. But where they're going someplace on earth, the history and location is real. So many weird things on earth, why make it up, just use it.
Janovy: It might be surprising for some people to realize how little diversity there is in children’s and young-adult publishing. The Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tracks statistics on this, and last year, out of the 3,500 books they counted, fewer than 300 were written by people of color. Why is this so important right now?
Taylor-Butler: If you look at the census, 50 percent of all children born in the United States are of some ethnic origin. The trend in U.S. publishing is that stories written about a white protagonist are mainstream. Stories written about Native Americans or Latinos or African Americans are considered a niche market. The solution to writing for kids of color has always been civil rights, slavery, let’s fill a niche for black history month. It's never been about kids who’s problems not related to their race – it’s not my girls are interested in a boy or love sick, it’s because they’re girls, not because they’re any ethnicity.
So it’s not that we need more diverse books about people of color. It’s that we need more diverse authors and illustrators creating those books, being created as a mainstream not a niche market. That’s where publishers are going to see their greatest increase in revenue, is a certain cultural authenticity infused in a book even if it’s mainstream about kids science fiction adventure looking for artifacts.