The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Helen Taylor
Helen Taylor writes books that inspire kids to wonder about their world in new ways.
Her favorite questions are How? and Why? even though the answers are rarely simple.
As a kid, she loved science and storytelling, but it wasn’t until she grew up that she figured out how to combine the two. She started telling quirky science stories in the museum world, writing about polar bear hair plugs, catfish physicals, and other curiosities. Now, Helen writes books that make science and engineering fun and accessible for kids.
Besides writing, she enjoys traveling, baking, and searching for banana slugs in the redwoods near her home in Santa Cruz, California.
Helen’s debut picture book, How to Eat in Space, releases on October 31st.
Welcome Helen, thank you so much for coming by to talk about your debut picture book and your writing.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to be here, Maria!
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
The majority of my writing happens in a little studio in my backyard while my kids are at school. Once, a friend of mine referred to it as the “book factory” and now that’s what I call it too. But I end up working in random places like parking lots and waiting rooms fairly often too. It’s very handy to be able to sync documents between devices!
It has been about six years since I first started down this kidlit path. That first year, I took several classes and most of the manuscripts I wrote were fiction. But my favorite among those early drafts was a nonfiction manuscript and since then, that’s primarily (but not exclusively!) what I work on.
Love the name "book factory." What do you like to do outside by yourself or with family or friends?
I love to hike—nothing too extreme, but I am very fortunate to live near some beautiful forests and beaches. My family and I also try to go camping a few times a year. We tell ourselves it’s nice to get away from the day-to-day hustle and spend time listening to the birds (which is true), but really, it’s all about the s’mores.
There's nothing quite like s'mores in the woods.😊 What was your inspiration or spark of interest for How to Eat in Space?
I came across an article about how astronauts were growing lettuce on the International Space Station and I was hooked. I read as much as I could about those experiments and started outlining a picture book focused on growing your own salad in space. But as I learned more about the bigger picture of what it takes to keep astronauts (relatively) well-fed in space, I started to think maybe that was the story I wanted to tell, and here we are!
Interesting how one fact can lead to some of the best rabbit holes. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
Going way back, Harold and the Purple Crayon, The Runaway Bunny, and A Very Special House were favorites. When I was a bit older, I loved choose-your-own-adventure books, Roald Dahl’s novels, and A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.
Those are all such great books. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about or gain from How to Eat in Space?
I am impressed and inspired by all of the creative problem solving that goes into every aspect of a space mission. If you were to write out a list of each challenge that must be overcome to send a human into orbit, just imagine how long it would be! But when you face a daunting task of any kind, that’s what you have to do—break it down into bite-sized pieces and tackle them one by one. My hope is that How to Eat in Space inspires kids to feel like they too can do hard things—just like all the nutritionists, engineers, and astronauts who have figured out how to make mealtime work in microgravity.
That is such an important skill for all of us to figure out. How many revisions did How to Eat in Space take from the first draft to publication?
I’d estimate that there were between 45 and 50 drafts all told. That includes revisions to do things like clarify or tighten the text, or re-order the spreads, and also several rounds for copyediting and fact-checking.
I'm not surprised, especially since it's important to get the facts right. What was the toughest aspect of writing or revising How to Eat in Space?
It was difficult at times to balance the trifecta of clarity, succinctness, and humor, but I’m really pleased with the end result. Between the text and illustrations, we squeezed a whole lot of information in there!
And you both did so in such a fun and interesting way. When you first saw Stevie Lewis’ illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you? Which is your favorite spread?
Seeing Stevie’s sketches for the first time totally blew my mind! All of a sudden, these words I had been working with for years were no longer alone on the page. There were characters! And they were eating and drinking in space! I realize that may sound kind of obvious, but it’s a really unique feeling.
Text © Helen Taylor, 2023. Image © Stevie Lewis, 2023.
I particularly love the abstract approach Stevie took to the spread about water reclamation. The subject matter is rather gross (they recycle everything on the International Space Station, even sweat and pee), but she made it beautiful. My favorite spread, though, is the final one because it captures so perfectly the simultaneous closeness and remoteness of the space station as it orbits Earth.
I'm not going to show the last image, but this one is amazing, too! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Yes, thanks for asking! I have a photo-illustrated nonfiction book coming out with Tilbury House in 2024 called Chasing Guano. It’s the story of an expedition to Antarctica’s Danger Islands during which scientists discovered a penguin supercolony.
That sounds fun; I look forward to seeing that book. And lastly, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why? (anywhere in the world)
Oooh, there are so many parks that I want to go visit that I can’t possibly choose, so I’m going to stick with one I’m longing to return to: Yellowstone. I visited once, but it was more than ten years ago and I really want to spend some more time there. The geysers and technicolor hot springs are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It seems otherworldly at first, until you realize: wait, no it’s thisworldy, which is even better!
I really enjoyed Yellowstone, too! Thank you, Helen for participating in this interview. It was wonderful to get to know you and your awesome book.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on How to Eat in Space.
To find out more about Helen Taylor, or contact her: