Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Today we’re interviewing Patricia Newman, author of the new book A RIVER’S GIFTS: THE MIGHTY ELWHA ROVER REBORN, illustrated by Natasha Donovan. “An illuminating glimpse at the Elwha River and its gifts…Beautifully illustrated and informative,” says Kirkus in a starred review.
Andi Diehn: I love how this is a story of scientific progress told alongside the story of a culture, the Strong People, who witness the destruction of their river and work for its return. How did you find a balance between discussing the engineering of the dams and story of a people?
Patricia Newman: When I write about the environment, I always discover a wonderful overlap between science, history, culture, and current events. This connection to all parts of our lives draws me to nature writing. That said, I do have to make some decisions regarding the pacing of the story—some details are omitted while others are expanded upon. During the research phase of A RIVER’S GIFTS, I took my lead from my experts who co-mingled science and culture. In this region, it is impossible to talk about the Elwha River without also considering its cultural significance.
AD: What inspired you to write this particular story?
PN: My husband came home from work one day with a book idea after a conversation with one of his colleagues. After 38 years of marriage, my husband has developed exceptional book-idea antennae! The story had it all. Nature. Environmental justice. Water (a happy place for me). A conservation success story. All those pieces and their assorted layers made this idea a go.
AD: You do a great job describing the tension between some forms of progress – such as electric lights in homes and businesses – and the adverse effect of that progress on the natural world. What are some other examples of progress versus environmental health?
PN: I remember an economics professor in college explaining the term “opportunity cost”—what we give up by choosing one thing over another. Life is filled with opportunity costs. I don’t blame the early Elwha River settlers one bit for preferring a life with electricity over a life without it. I grumble when my electricity goes down for a few hours! But we also need to include nature into our calculations when we make decisions.
For instance, at the time the Elwha Dam was built, Washington had a law stating all dams must include fish ladders to allow salmon to pass. For some reason, government officials waived this law for Thomas Aldwell, builder of the Elwha Dam. Why? No one knows. And in hindsight, this waiver is particularly maddening because the law was written with consideration for nature.
Including nature in our plans probably won’t be the easiest or cheapest solution. Look at gas-powered vehicles. They’re convenient. They’re fast. But they come with an enormous opportunity cost. We’re sacrificing clean air and clean water. Our temperature is rising because excess CO2 left over from burning fossil fuels clogs the atmosphere. Arctic ice is melting as the ocean warms. Heat waves, fires, and droughts dominate the news.
Way back, we chose leaders who prioritized progress over nature. Now, when we elect new leaders, we need to consider balancing progress and nature to live more sustainably.
AD: Are there other dam dismantling success stories? Any examples of dam dismantling gone wrong?
PN: Dams themselves aren’t evil. They provide a clean source of energy for millions of people, but they do come with consequences. River flow and flood patterns change. Fish populations change. Changes in the river channel change the surrounding forest. Dams are man-made structures that interfere with the natural functions of nature, functions we often don’t fully understand.
Every dam removal is a success story because we return a river to its free-flowing state to manage flooding, resupply the water table, manage wildlife populations, and nourish the ecosystem. Nearly 1,800 dams have been removed in the U.S. since 1912. I don’t know of any dam removals gone bad, but I do know of several projects that, like the Elwha River Restoration, are taking years of legal wrangling and governmental maneuvering.
AD: These illustrations are both gorgeous and scientifically fascinating! Why did the team think it important to add labels to the different species?
PN: I’m glad you like Natasha Donovan’s work. She is Métis and lives in the general area of the Elwha River, so she was able to create from her heart. In her art I can hear the river flow and feel its power.
In my original proposal, I provided lists of trees, plants, and wildlife for possible spot illustrations in the margins. I thought readers would feel the scope of this project if they knew about the vast array of biodiversity being saved. Art Director Danielle Carnito had the brilliant idea to add the labels directly to Natasha’s illustrations. The small but informative labels gave Natasha a lot more room for her gorgeous art.
AD: Why include real photographs of the dam being built and dismantled, not just illustrations?
PN: As a nonfiction author, “real” is important to me. Illustrations seemed a better fit for A RIVER’S GIFTS overall because the book begins back when the river first formed tens of thousands of years ago. But I worked from photographs. My research files are loaded with photos that show a sense of time and place. I think the photos provide a telling look at the size of these dams and the engineering magic that occurred to build them.
AD: One of the takeaway lessons from this book is that it’s never too late. We can undo past mistakes once we know better, such as dismantling dams. Why is this important to explore in children’s literature?
PN: We are all under attack by environmental headlines that spew gloom and doom. That’s why I write about our CONNECTION to nature. I want my readers to understand how it sustains us and how our habits affect it. With understanding, comes a sense of gratitude for nature and all its gifts. With gratitude comes action. And with action comes hope. Nature will heal itself if we move out of the way. We just need to learn which way to jump.
Patricia Newman is an award-winning author of nonfiction books for children.
Natasha Donovan is an illustrator with a focus on comics and children’s illustration.
Today’s host, And Diehn, is an editor at Nomad Press and has published 11 nonfiction books for kids.