Six Questions with Patricia Newman
Sibert Honor author Patricia Newman writes books that show readers how their
actions ripple around the world. Using social and environmental injustice as inspiration, she
empowers readers to seek connections to the real world and to use their imaginations to act on behalf of their communities. Her books have received numerous awards in addition to the Sibert Honor, including an Orbis Pictus Award, two Green Earth Book Awards, and several Best Children’s Books of the Year designations from the Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature. Titles include the newly released A River’s Gifts; Planet Ocean; Sea Otter Heroes; Eavesdropping on Elephants; Zoo Scientists to the Rescue; Plastic, Ahoy!; and Neema’s Reason to Smile. Visit Patricia's website to learn more about her and her work.
1. How did you begin your journey as an author?
My mother-in-law Evelyn planted the initial seed. I’ve always been a reader, but I don’t ever remember writing outside of school as a child. One day while Evelyn was visiting, I took my young kids to the library. We returned home with a stack of books, and I started to read them aloud. As I read Evelyn said, “Patti, you could do this.” I decided she was right and began to figure out how. My research led me to SCBWI and magazine writing before I worked up the courage to write PBs and MG nonfiction. When Evelyn was alive, I used to joke with her that I was the only daughter-in-law who ever listened to her mother-in-law. She loved that and was one of my biggest champions.
2. Do you ever struggle to come up with your next project? Or do you have lots of ideas and find it a challenge to narrow down your ideas?
I’m assaulted by ideas. My problem is finding the time to work on them all. I usually work on two or three ideas at the same time in various stages of the bookmaking process. Although this is probably not the most efficient way to work, it’s how my brain works. And I’ve learned to listen to my brain.
3. How do you know your idea will make a good book?
This is a great question. Most people think that nonfiction authors are driven by a desire to report facts. Not so with me. My books fill an emotional need within me; the topics are personal, and I invest a lot of myself – a lot of heart -- in every project. If a book idea has that necessary personal connection, then I dig deeper. I gravitate towards subjects that highlight our connections to nature and how nature can unite us.
4. What was the process and timeline for A River's Gift, from idea to publishing?
A River’s Gifts began in my husband’s office in September 2018. He stopped to chat with one of his colleagues about where her college-aged triplets worked during the summer. Theo, one of her triplets, scored an internship with the Elwha River Restoration on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Engineers had just breached two dams to drain Lake Aldwell above the 100-year-old Elwha Dam and Lake Mills above the 85-year-old Glines Canyon Dam. Theo helped replant the barren lakebed with native seeds and seedlings, one member of a small army of botanists and volunteers who would go on to plant 400,000 plants on 800 acres of lakebed over seven years.
When my husband arrived home that evening, he told me about Theo’s internship and said the Elwha River Restoration seemed like a great idea for a book. I interviewed Theo and subsequently made a list of other stakeholders to interview for preliminary research, including Olympic National Park scientists, members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, politicians, and community members, Next, I created a proposal to outline my idea for my editor. My agent submitted the proposal in February 2019. By July, I had an offer.
In September 2019, I visited Washington to begin researching in earnest. I prefer to interview experts on site to see what they see and hear what they hear. I learned about salmon from a fish biologist at Olympic National Park. A tribal host gave me a tour of the Lower Elwha Klallam Museum. She shared the tribe’s connection to salmon in their stories, language, and ceremonies. I visited a tribal fish hatchery built to keep the salmon run alive for the Lower Elwha Klallam people while the river was dammed. A botanist took me on a hike to one of the former lakebeds, now a riot of plants native to the area. We found a formerly submerged cedar stump with the logger’s ax cut still visible.
I submitted a completed manuscript in January 2020 which went through very minor edits. Then illustrator Natasha Donovan worked on the art for roughly six months. The Tribal Council and Olympic National Park scientists stood with us all the way to be sure the text and illustrations were accurate. Despite the global pandemic we stayed on track and the book released on September 6, 2022.
5. If you could tell readers one secret about this book, what would it be?
Adipose fins! Wild salmon are born with tiny adipose fins on their backs near their tails. But hatcheries remove these fins to identify their fish because for many years only hatchery fish were legal for fishermen to catch. As A River’s Gifts progressed from the past to the present, we had to count the adipose fins in Natasha’s illustrations! While the dams were in place very few wild salmon returned to the Elwha and successfully spawned. Now that the dams have been removed, scientists are beginning to see more wild salmon with those lovely little adipose fins.
6. Who should read this book?
Everyone. I don’t mean to be glib, but we are overwhelmed on a daily basis with depressing environmental headlines. An eco-story with a happy ending is rare indeed. We should take the time to celebrate it. The Elwha River Restoration is a shining example of cooperation and collaboration. And as Elwha KIallam tribal member Suz Bennet says in her note at the end of A River’s Gifts, “We believe the tribal members who lobbied for dam removal and passed on before its completion have given the next seven generations physical, mental, and spiritual healing at the Elwha River.” A conservation success story offers us all a sense of hope for the future.