Student and Professor Collaborate on Children's Book About Mitosis

In another example of the personal attention that is a hallmark of St. Thomas, Bronwyn Tollefson '22 and Biology Professor Haude Levesque recently self-published "Happy Cells!," a children’s story that is a simplified telling of the process of mitosis, a crucial component in the growth and development of organisms.

The Newsroom connected with the two to learn more about their collaboration.

What inspired the book Happy Cells! to be written?

Tollefson: My first-year biology course Biological Communication and Energetics is what inspired me to create this book. Dr. Colin Martin was teaching the course at that time and I specifically remember being so amazed at the complexity of mitosis and at how it functions to keep organisms alive. I gained a whole new perspective on biological growth. Dr. Haude Levesque was my lab professor for the course and we did a lot of hands-on activities that allowed me to grasp the importance of this biological process and see up close how it functions. Between the understanding I gained in lecture and the skills I learned in my lab experience, I was determined to share this knowledge of mitosis in a way that children and adults could understand and appreciate.

Tell us about how this book has inspired others.

Tollefson: It has been awesome to hear the feedback and the positive impact that our book has had so far. For instance, I have had a recent friend express her enthusiasm in reading and her teaching it to her second graders. We are working to get Happy Cells! involved at many local libraries and bookstores when they reopen and our aim is to make it accessible to everyone. Overall, we want our book to spark curiosity in readers and allow them to explore concepts such as mitosis at the microscopic level. Many books focus on organs, cells and other macroscopic concepts, but it is hard to find those that provide ideas from the microscopic level and our hope is that Happy Cells! will add this new perspective to their learning!

Why was the subject mitosis chosen for the book?

Tollefson: I realized that mitosis was a concept that I had been continually learning throughout my high school and college education each year with even more depth. I quickly recognized the importance of mitosis and how beneficial it would be to learn about it in the early ages of childhood. My goal since then is to spark this type of curiosity and learning in readers and to positively inspire the next generation of thinkers. Although mitosis can be quite complex, it still boils down to a few fundamental stages. It is these fundamental stages that I focus on in the book for a solid understanding of them will prepare readers to easily grasp more complicated aspects later on. There is so much that is known about mitosis, yet there is still so much to be discovered. This process plays a central role in cancer development so researchers today are still working to gain more understanding on it. Mitosis is a vital process and knowledge of it can be applied to so many areas within biology and beyond.

Tell us about the process in which Haude got involved in the illustration of the book.

Levesque: I met Bronwyn when I was teaching the laboratory part of Biological Communication and Energetics (BIOL 208). When I introduce myself to students, I also mention I am a scientific illustrator, a children’s book writer, illustrator and an artist. I think it is good to show students that I have many interests in life and that I am able to balance them while being very busy with two kids.

At the beginning of the semester, Bronwyn let me know that she really liked creative writing and had some ideas about a children’s book about mitosis. She wanted to have some advice on book publishing. In the past, I had always worked with publishing companies, so I know it is really difficult to be selected as an author. It all depends on who you know. So, I told her she should look into self-publishing. Then at the end of the semester, I asked her how things were going, and she said she was almost done with the book. I didn’t want to impose on her work, but I was available and kind of curious to try the self-publishing road myself so I told her that if she wanted, I would prepare some sketches for her book and if she liked them, I would make her book’s drawings. She liked the sketches, so we decided to work together on the project. I did the illustrations for Bronwyn’s book using Krita (an open-source software). I also did the book layout because I was interested in learning how to do it. It was a lot of back and forth for a year, but I can’t believe how well we managed everything.

What was the business of writing and publishing a book like?

Tollefson: I had a lot of ideas in my head for this book at the beginning of the semester. Oddly enough, I wrote the book backwards. The ending of the book “Happy tummy, happy eyes, happy bones ... happy lives!” came to me first and then the rest of the book just followed after that. The process of self-publishing was a completely new experience for me. It definitely took time and patience, but I am so glad about how well the book came together.

Levesque: Drawing the illustrations is the best part I think, that’s where you get to play with the characters of the story. Designing the book was more tedious. I had to learn a new software, Scribus (open-source), but I am extremely happy with the result.

What has been most rewarding from this experience?

Tollefson: The most rewarding is seeing the book finally come together and hearing the wonderful feedback from others who have been enjoying it. The support from the St. Thomas community, the St. Paul community and beyond is incredible and I am excited to continue expanding our book to reach more places and people. I have had friends and teachers talk about how they are going to implement this book in their cities in different ways and it has been so rewarding to see it serve the community and have such a positive impact.

Levesque: The most rewarding for me was definitively to hold the book in my hands. Another rewarding moment was to see my 7-year-old son be so proud of the book. He loves to read it and show it to his friends and teachers.

What has been most challenging from this experience?

Tollefson: It has been challenging to self-publish Happy Cells! amid the coronavirus pandemic, as we were initially hoping to do hands-on activities with libraries, bookstores and schools. We are currently trying to find ways to connect with the community and this book through other online formats and opportunities. It took a little over a year to completely finish and publish our book as it took time to find the right platform and learn the design software for the drawings. Additionally, there were many bumps in the road when we were trying to find a platform that would give the best images and text for the reader, but we were unaware of the different requirements that certain platforms have. It is certainly a time investment and learning process, but it is one well worth it, as we have gained a lot of knowledge and appreciation for the development, marketing and promotion strategies that come with publishing a book.

Levesque: The challenges were really at the end of the process, once we had all the book (text and drawings) done but were looking at where and how to publish it. None of us had any experience in self-publishing and there was a lot to learn. This last part required us to adjust at the last minute and be very flexible. We decided to change the publishing platform later in the process for several reasons (quality of the impression, account management issues) and I had to change the book format at the last minute which was not very fun and was time consuming. Learning the way each publishing platform works and learning the publishing jargon was also one of my least favorite steps in the process. However, we know that all those steps will be easier for the next book we make.

How was the book marketed in the Twin Cities and beyond?

Both: Since we are self-published, we have been doing the promotional and marketing ourselves. We have been enjoying it so far, and it has provided another way for us to connect with the community. Our book is available through order on Lulu; one can order a hardcover or softcover copy as well as an e-book (link to order is below). We are excited to be getting our book reviewed through multiple review platforms and to be growing our book availability in more libraries and bookstores. We are also very excited to be in contact with NPR, the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnesota Book Awards!

Will there be more children’s books like this one in your future?

Tollefson: Definitely! I love combining my passion for biology and creative writing. It has been so much fun writing in a way that is imaginative and informative, and I am excited to keep exploring ideas that I can share with others through my books. As I have been taking more biology classes at St. Thomas and continuing my undergraduate research with Dr. Afshan Ismat, I am discovering the multitude of vital processes in the field of biology. I want to inspire a love of learning and curiosity in a way that also sparks creativity. Biology is truly awesome, and I want to share that with the world!

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Both: The link to order Happy Cells! is: Our book is also available through phone order and in-person purchase at the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul.