That Highlights Magic: From Learning to Write a Book Proposal to Celebrating a Book Birthday

May 29, 2024 | Community Good News, The Highlights Foundation Experience

We’re welcoming friend and author Stephanie Gibeault to the blog today! Stephanie’s celebrating the book birthday for Calculating Chimpanzees, Brainy Bees, and Other Animals with Mind-Blowing Mathematical Abilities about the book, and how the Highlights Foundation had a part in its publication.

OK, first things first.  Congratulations!  Tell us about the book and how the idea came to you.

Thank you so much for hosting me on the blog. I’m excited about this book, so it’s wonderful to have a chance to talk about it. Calculating Chimpanzees, Brainy Bees, and Other Animals with Mind-Blowing Mathematical Abilities is a nonfiction book for 9- to 12-year-olds. It’s an entertaining and fascinating approach to STEM that includes interviews with scientists, information about animal habitats and behavior, and hands-on activities that give readers the chance to test their own math skills. There are photos of the animals along with fun and colorful illustrations by Jaclyn Sinquett.

The idea for this book began to germinate when I was in graduate school. I studied animal behavior and was intrigued by the way animals think. Although I studied spatial memory and communication in primates, I loved reading about all the other incredible things animals can do. Their number skills are particularly impressive! So, once I was writing for children, I decided to develop a book proposal on the topic to share my enthusiasm. Thankfully, MIT Kids Press wanted to publish it. And I’m super grateful that the Junior Library Guild chose it as a Gold Standard Selection.

Book cover: Calculating Chimpanzees, Brainy Bees, and Other Animals with Mind-Blowing Mathematical Abilities

Lots of kids and even adults have math phobia. Did you ever think you would write a book about math?

Lots of people almost break out in hives when you mention math, and I used to be one of them. I thought majoring in biology in university would keep me safe. But when I took a third-year ecology course, I was crunching numbers every class. Then in grad school, I needed to tackle statistics. I came to the realization that everything is math!

Now I find math elegant and universal. Even more so after writing the book. I actually do simple math puzzles to relax! I’m sure math-loving kids will enjoy the book’s exploration of concepts like numerosity and zero, but I hope kids who are afraid of math find a new interest in numbers. I’d love to counteract math phobia by surprising readers with what animals can do and why they can do it. For example, spotted hyenas can count because it helps them anticipate if their clan will win in a fight with another clan.

What was the process like to get it to the page?  And how did the Highlights Foundation help you in that journey?

The process of getting this book on paper involved intense research. My area of expertise is biology, not mathematics. So not only did I need to study each of the animals featured in the book, but I also needed to understand the math concepts I wanted to introduce. I read a lot of books and academic papers plus I interviewed the scientists whose work I featured. But my biggest challenge was the voice. I wanted a conversational approach that would appeal to children; however, my first drafts sounded like I wrote them in my former time as an academic. I’m so grateful to my critique partners for helping me find my groove.

Highlights played a role in the development of this book because I learned how to write an engaging book proposal at the Nuts and Bolts of Science Writing 2019 retreat. With the help of the fabulous faculty (Heather L. Montgomery, Jen Swanson, and Miranda Paul), I developed a proposal there that later sold as a two-book deal. Then I moved on to write the proposal for Calculating Chimpanzees which sold at the end of 2021. And I’m currently writing one more proposal for another middle grade nonfiction about animal behavior.

Photo: Stephanie Gibeault standing in front of the Barn at Boyds Mills

Stephanie at the Barn during the Nuts and Bolts of Science Writing workshop.

What did pub day feel like?  And what do you hope kids will take away from your book?

Pub day was a bit of a blur. I had another book, Making Sense of Dog Senses (illustrated by Raz Latif, from Owlkids Books), come out three weeks before, so there was so much going on at once. But I spent Independent Bookstore Day at my local indie Blue Heron Books and the amazing manager managed to get my book on the shelf early. It was such a thrill to hold it in my hands.

My wish with this book is to pique kids’ interest in math and to get readers excited about animal intelligence. Animals can do some impressive and astonishing things and are more like us than people often realize. So, I hope kids read the book then want to learn more. I also want them to appreciate how much we have yet to discover about animal minds. These kids are the scientists of tomorrow, and I hope I can inspire future inquiry.

Do you have any current or future projects you’d like to tell us about?

I have two nonfiction picture books coming out next year. The first is a fun comparison of dog and human sensory perception called Dogs Versus Humans: A Showdown of the Senses (illustrated by Bambi Edlund, from Owlkids Books). It playfully pits the two species against one another to see who comes out victorious. We all know dogs will win the smell competition by a nose, but the other senses might surprise you.

The second picture book is The Dog That Saved the Bees (illustrated by David Hohn, from Sleeping Bear Press) is the story of apiary inspector Cybil Preston and her rescue dog Mack who went from a lonely life in a garage to being the only certified beehive sniffer dog in the United States. So much of our food supply depends on pollinators like bees, and Mack keeps those bees safe from foulbrood, a deadly bee disease. His story warms my heart and I’m so thrilled to share it with young readers.

Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

Learn More About the Author

Our Mission in Action

Share Your Story, Inspire a Child
Equity & Inclusion in Kidlit
Partners & Sponsors

The Highlights Foundation positively impacts children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves.  Learn more about our impact.