When author Christine Taylor-Butler ’81 does events to promote her children’s books, you might find her teaching kids how to burst a balloon with baking soda and vinegar, or showing them how to power a digital clock with a potato. It’s not your typical story hour, but then again, she hasn’t had a typical career.
Taylor-Butler’s love of reading and writing stems from her childhood in Cleveland, during which her parents tried to introduce her and her two sisters to every subject imaginable. “I think we were overstimulated as children,” she says with a laugh. Her natural aptitude for math and science propelled her toward a civil engineering degree at MIT (she double-majored in architecture) and, later, an engineering job at Hallmark Cards, where she worked on production logistics. After more than a decade of that work, however, her longtime dreams of writing persisted.
There’s so much emphasis on getting a good test score that the applicants weren’t reading for pleasure anymore.
Around that time, while interviewing prospective students as a volunteer MIT educational counselor near her home in Kansas City, Missouri, “I started to see this shift,” she recalls. “There’s so much emphasis on getting a good test score that the applicants weren’t reading for pleasure anymore.” She also met students who were graduating from high school disliking science. When she left Hallmark in 2000, she had a goal: writing fun, science-oriented books for kids.
For the Scholastic True Books educational nonfiction series, Taylor-Butler has written 30 books on topics ranging from planets and the human body to civil rights and the Supreme Court. She also visits schools, libraries, and festivals, where she encourages kids to explore the science behind her books. “I love the challenge of being able to develop something that’s artistic and technical at the same time,” she says.
Taylor-Butler’s ability to make science interesting for kids is on full display in her science-fiction series The Lost Tribes, which she describes as “the technical Harry Potter.” In the books—the third of which, Trials, is about to be released—a team of kids embarks on problem-solving adventures around the world. The story structure allows Taylor-Butler to sneak in science along the way.
The cast of The Lost Tribes includes a black protagonist—something Taylor-Butler noticed was lacking in the books her two daughters read growing up. “I wanted to write a series in which kids from marginalized cultures got to be the heroes,” she says. As for her ultimate goal with the series? “There are kids who have never been outside their own communities. I’m hoping to open up the world a little bit in the way books opened it up for me.”
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of MIT News magazine, published by MIT Technology Review.