The first books in The Little Elephants BIG Adventures series finally published! *cue happy dance*
I wrote these books whole five years ago. (And one of those years was 2020 – so it feels like a couple of decades.) Even in the slow world of children’s book publishing, that’s a long time to keep book news under your beret.
So today, I finally get to share some more details about the project and what I’ve been doing for the last five years. Starting with how it all got started.
1. Education research inspired the books
When preschoolers listen to books read aloud, they learn math. But how?
A team of researchers at Purdue University found that the math language in the books was responsible. Kids who listened to books with simple math language like “more” or “above” did better when tested on math. Even months later. Even on math that wasn’t in the books.
So The Little Elephants’ BIG Adventures series is a collaboration between the Purdue team and myself to make books with exactly that kind of math language.
2. Math language is everywhere
Math language is so common in English that you probably don’t even think of it as being math. I just used the word “even” in that last sentence and you didn’t notice. And now I used “last.” See what I mean?
But kids need to know those things to learn the stuff you do think of as being “math.” If you say “what’s one more than eight?” The kids need to know what “one” and “eight” mean, but they also need to know what “more” means so they know you’re adding instead of subtracting or doing some other kind of math.
This math language appears in many picture books, but it’s not usually used in a way that will help the kids connect he word to the math concept. The Little Elephant books do just that. (Did you notice I said “many?” Math language really is everywhere.)
3. Kids picked elephants (but translation mattered, too)
The researchers surveyed kids at several preschools for their favorite animals. Elephants made the top of the list.
But the books would also be translated into Spanish so they needed animals that translated cleanly. An elephant is un elefante in every Spanish-speaking country.
4. We chose a sister/brother duo to avoid negative gender stereotypes
Children of all genders are equally good at math. But girls’ mth skills begin lagging behind boys in early elementary due to cultural stereotypes that “math is not for girls.” (Not every culture has this stereotype and in those cultures, gender doesn’t play a role in math skills.)
One goal of The Little Elephants’ books was to counter that stereotype. So we chose a brother-sister pair as dual main characters to show that boys and girls are equally good at math.
I also work on gender balance between and within the books. I go through every manuscript and highlight all of Lucy’s parts in one color and all of Benjamin’s parts in another color. That makes it easy to see if they have (approximately) the same number lines and actions. Then I made changes if necessary.
Across the series, I look at who is the central character for each book. Even in books with dual main characters, one is usually a little more central to the story. One story is about fixing Lucy’s exploded cake. In another, they work through Benjamin’s worries about camping for the first time. When I’m developing the story concepts, I balance them so that each character is central in the same number of books. And they always work together to solve problems and find solutions.
5. We added Bear to make the math work
Some of the math required comparing three things, which meant we needed three characters. So we added a stuffed Bear. He’s inanimate but Lucy and Benjamin perceive him as being real.
Bear was a solution to a problem but it ended up making for some great storylines. Bear gets in a lot of trouble and the readers enjoy being in on the joke – it’s not Bear’s fault!
6. Every book covers specific math content
Many of the books deal with quantities using words like “more”, “less,” and “similar.” Other books target spatial words like “in”, “above,” and “beside.”
For each book, I’m given a list of between 10 and 20 words and phrases I have to use. Then I come up with a storyline that will give me enough chances to use those words with illustrations that back up the math.
I also use highlighters to help track math content. I highlight all the targeted words/phrases. That makes it easy to tally them, see how they’re spread throughout the text, and juggle them around.
7. I got the job because of my academic background
My academic background is one big reason I got brought into the project. I have a degree in a related field to the work being done by Purdue. That gave me a leg up over other kidlit writers. And I love that I’m able to work in a research I think is interesting and important.
But even I am consistently surprised at the amount of technical info I learned in graduate school that comes up in these “simple” books for kids.
8. I write a book every 2 months
That’s an entire book from brainstorming until final acceptance of edits.
Even for a 320-word book, that’s fast!
9. I just finished my 9th book in the series. But I’ve written 12 books total.
On the same day I announced the publication of the first three books, I turned in the final edits on the ninth book in the series! But back in 2018, I wrote three additional books for them to use in research.
They wanted to test if the math language in the Little Elephant books really did work. One way to test that is to compare kids who read the Little Elephant books with the math language, to kids who read books without math language. But since math language is everywhere, we had to create the math-free books they needed.
(This is another place where my academic background came in handy – I designed and ran many such experiments, so I have some idea of what factors are important when designing control books like these.)
These books were a challenge! I had to write new storylines to existing illustrations and I could not use any of the math words used in any of the Little Elephants books – that’s a very long list including many common words like “in,” “on,” “more,” etc. I also had to stick to the same word count targets (within about 20 words). I spent a lot of time rearranging pictures and pulling my hair out trying to turn it into a storyline.
10. 3 years ago I was a visiting scholar at Purdue
I led workshops with a class of undergrads who were developing their own math book series.
I also gave an invited talk and sat in on a lab meeting where we discussed the research project surrounding my books.
11. I’ve grown enormously as a writer
Writing is a skill like any other – you get better the more you practice.
Writing nine books in the same series over five years really drives that home. I’m a much stronger writer now than I was in 2016. I see it in the writing process as much as the final manuscripts. Writing never gets easy, exactly, but I have a lot more tricks up my sleeve when things get hard. And I’m still learning!
12. Now we’re starting a new series
Last week I met with the Purdue team over Zoom to begin on a new picture book series targeting socioemotional learning and environmental themes. I can’t wait!