Science Book a Day Interviews Rebecca Stefoff


Special thanks to Rebecca Stefoff for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – The Third Chimpanzee for Young People: On the Evolution and Future of the Human Animal

I’m Rebecca Stefoff, the author of a ton of books for young readers. I’ve written about animals, exploration, famous people, geography and history, science and inventions, and more. – From Rebecca’s Homepage

Rebecca’s Homepage:

#1 – What was the impetus for The Third Chimpanzee for Young People?

The idea originated with my publisher, Seven Stories Press in New York, which has an imprint called Triangle Square for books for young readers. Seven Stories Press had published two previous adaptations I had written: young-adult versions of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America./ These adaptations were well received by educators and librarians, and the publisher thought that doing a young people’s version of an important science book would be a good next step. Jared Diamond came to mind because his work is not just fascinating but also very accessible. Because he writes for a general audience, it would not be a huge step to adapt one of his books for young people. The Third Chimpanzee was his first book, but it is a fantastic introduction to his work because it contains all the topics he later expanded on
in Guns, Germs and Steel and other books such as Collapse.

#2 – How did you work with the original text to develop this book?

I started by getting hold of the 2006 reissue of The Third Chimpanzee,  which had some endnotes bringing certain topics up to date–the original book, after all, had been published in 1992. The next step was to prepare an outline showing what chapters and sections of Professor Diamond’s book I would include (or exclude) in the young-people’s version, and how I proposed to break up the material with sidebars and additional subheads. The outline also included my queries to Professor Diamond about information we might want to update, new discoveries we might want to mention, and so on.

Professor Diamond reviewed the outline and responded to my queries, and then I started the actual writing. My goal in adapting the work of others is always to retain their own words and voices whenever possible. Fortunately Professor Diamond has a clear and appealing style. Ninety percent of what I did was to abridge or shorten the text by cutting material, or to simplify complicated sentences and paragraphs. The other ten percent was to make transitions and connections more explicit, or to add new explanations or definitions of things that adult readers would take for granted but younger ones might need some help with, such as “DNA” or “extinction.”

Both Professor Diamond and the publisher reviewed my manuscript, and I incorporated their feedback into a revised text that became the finished book.

#3 – There are some heavy issues in your book, how did you frame these for children?

You point out a challenging issue. The Third Chimpanzee covers a wide range of sensitive topics, including human sexuality and genocide. (The first, by the way, is much more difficult to talk about in a book for young people than the second, because parents and others tend to be more aware of and sometimes alarmed by it.) I used several strategies to frame difficult topics. One was to elide or even eliminate material that might be seen as problematic, if this could be done without weakening the integrity of the book. For example, Professor Diamond’s book has three chapters on human sexual behavior and its likely evolutionary roots. My adaptation condenses that material into just one chapter, and I eliminated certain things–such as a discussion of comparative penis size in humans and other primates–entirely.

Another strategy was to add a few paragraphs to the Prologue and at key points in the text, explaining that evolutionary biology is not necessarily the complete or only explanation for why people do the things they do. It is a tool for seeing ourselves in a new way, as part of the world of living things, that can add to our species’ self-knowledge. And I expanded on Professor Diamond’s assertion that human behavior also has a moral or ethical dimension, and that as human beings we have the power to make choices about what we do.

Finally, when talking about heavy topics such as genocide and environmental destruction, I made sure to include Professor Diamond’s own point that by knowing and thinking about such things, we gain the power to avoid or reverse or improve them. He allows for the possibility of hope and positive outcomes, and I tried to end on that note.

#4 – The book has been out for a few months. What feedback have you had from parents? teachers? kids?

So far I haven’t heard much from kids about it. I expect that will change during the coming year, when I will do my visits to middle schools and high schools in my area. The feedback I’ve gotten from librarians and booksellers has been positive, with a lot of people saying things like, “We need more books like this.” I hope that parents will agree, and that adults who may have put off reading Professor Diamond because they thought his books might be too long or too difficult will read my adaptation and then go on to read his other books. Of course, there is a percentage of the population that is always
going to be upset by any book for kids that talks about evolution. I wrote an original four-book series on Human Evolution a few years ago. It was aimed at high-school students and got great reviews from librarians and science publications. The negative feedback I got came from parents who attacked the pro-science foundation of the series or criticized me for not including creationism. There is really nothing you can do about that.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

Yes! I’m very excited to be in the final stages of adapting Charles C. Mann’s wonderful book 1493 into a young-adult version. It tells the story of how the world changed dramatically–in ecological, economic, and human terms–once Europeans reached the Americas and began voyaging among all of the continents, carrying food crops, pests, diseases, and migrants (willing and unwilling) to new parts of the world. It’s basically a look at how what we now call globalization got started, and how it is remaking the world to this day. Mann’s research spans an amazing variety of topics, but it is the human stories he shares that make 1493 so readable. I hope that the condensed, YA version I am preparing will bring those stories to a lot of new young readers.

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