Engineering a Good Story - Y Magazine
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Engineering a Good Story

Aaron Hawkins

Electrical engineering professor Aaron Hawkins’ first chapter book is a slice out of his childhood.

Electrical engineering professor Aaron Hawkins’ first chapter book is a slice out of his childhood.

Growing up, BYU professor Aaron R. Hawkins always said he was going to be a scientist or a writer; “the two always sounded mutually exclusive,” he says.

Not so for this electrical engineer. After years moonlighting as an author, Hawkins’ first fiction work, The Year Money Grew on Trees, was not only published by Houghton Mifflin in 2010—it was also recognized as a 2010–11 Junior Library Guild Selection.

Geared for children 10 and up, the story follows a gang of siblings and cousins as they try to turn a derelict apple orchard into a moneymaker, and it’s a slice right out of Hawkins’ childhood.

“My grandma had this apple orchard,” he says, where he and sisters and cousins worked for free as kids, pruning, weeding, spraying, and irrigating. He used their real names for the characters in the book—“everyone’s but mine,” says Hawkins. Instead, the book’s main character is Jackson, a 14-year-old with an entrepreneurial spirit.

And Jackson’s summer venture unfolds alongside some uncommon illustration for chapter books: diagrams—some with measurements—of tractors and irrigation systems drawn by Hawkins himself. “I’m no artist,” he says, but he is adept at modeling with CAD engineering software. After modeling the irrigation system in CAD, he would trace the printouts, giving them an illustrated look.

Then there are the calculations—math equations scrawled on the book’s pages—as the characters determine how many boxes of apples an orchard can produce and forecast future profits. “They’re figuring out supply and demand on the fly,” says Hawkins. Such concepts, woven into a fun plot, have led to rave book reviews by entities like the Rutgers University’s EconKids.

As for balancing the engineer and the writer within, Hawkins doesn’t buy into stereotypes. “In society we have built up this idea that engineers are good at math but they aren’t good at expressing themselves,” he says. “To me, the creative process that goes into either of them is the same.”