Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Q&A with Elizabeth Rusch

Elizabeth Rusch's many books include the children's picture books A Search for the Northern Lights (written with Izzi Rusch) and Gidget the Surfing Dog, and the young adult book You Call This Democracy?. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Q: How did you and your teenager end up writing a picture book about the Northern Lights, and what do you think the book says about the environment?

A: My teenager Izzi homeschooled for 8th grade. We both love the outdoors and we started talking about and researching the northern lights and decided to take a trip to Alaska to see if we could spot them.

While on the phone with an editor at West Margin Press, I told her about what we were doing. She thought it was a great idea for a book, so we wrote a proposal.

We had the year of homeschooling to search, so we ended up searching in Alaska (where it rained) in Iceland, (where it snowed) at Glacier National Park (where a solar storm never materialized) and then ended up seeing it after a long night drive to rural Oregon, near where we live!

While focused on the northern lights, the search took us to many places with incredible natural beauty. Appreciation for the beauty and wonder for our planet became a big part of the story.

Q: You've also written another new picture book, Gidget the Surfing Dog. How did you learn about Gidget, and what do you hope readers take away from her story?

A: I love dogs and have always wanted to write dog books. But the market is so crowded. It’s tough to find a dog story to write that has not been covered before.

In 2018, I published a book about an adorable border collie who was training to be a snow search and rescue dog called Avalanche Dog Heroes: Piper and Friends Learn to Search the Snow. It melds a nonfiction narrative with gorgeous photos of dogs in action and science sidebars.

My editor at Little Bigfoot and I loved the package so much that I began actively searching for another dog story that I could tell using a similar approach. I discovered dog surfing and then found Gidget’s website,  

After talking to Gidget’s owner, Alecia Nelson, I realized I had found a gem of a story about a small but mighty pug who overcame a life-threatening illness to become a world-champion surfing dog – and now focuses her work on charity and the environment.

Gidget the Surfing Dog celebrates the natural world – the ocean and its surfing waves. But it addresses the environment directly, too.  So it’s a super fun book, but with a heart.

I hope readers take away a love for these amazing dogs and for our beautiful ocean and some inspiration to help them overcome obstacles and make this a better world.

Q: Your third new book (you are very busy!), for young adults, is called You Call This Democracy?: How to Fix Our Government and Deliver Power to the People. What inspired this book, and did you learn anything surprising in the course of your research?

A: In the mid-1990s I got a master’s in public policy and then spent a year working as a fellow in the U.S. Senate. Those experiences have affected the way I have read and understood the news for more than 20 years.

Over time I developed a growing conviction that our democracy doesn’t live up to the promise of one person, one vote. Our system gives more power to corporations and the wealthy than to ordinary citizens.

I realized that we may never get the laws and policies we want until we fix our democracy. The environment is a good example.

According to a recent Pew poll “nearly as many Americans say protecting the environment should be a top policy priority (64%) as say this about strengthening the economy (67%).”

Sixty-eight percent of Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy to combat climate change and 60 percent support raising taxes on corporations that burn fossil fuels. Yet current leaders have blocked these policies.

This book shows how people are already working to make the changes we need and how readers can too.

One of the biggest surprises from my research is that most of these problems actually happen at the state level. This is good news for us citizens. It is so much easier to make change at the state level than through Congress, so that gives me a lot of hope.

I hope that readers all across the country be inspired to work to make our democracy work better. The future of our planet – and every other issue we care about – depends on it. (Readers can learn more about how to get involved in the book at

Q: Given that it's Earth Day, what do you see looking ahead when it comes to environmental issues, and what do you see as young people's role?

A: I am of two minds here. I believe deeply that the best hope for our future lies with young people. They have the energy, ideas, passions, and will to make change and they are already working so effectively for change through marches, strikes, advocacy, and through the courts.

But I also believe that it is really tragic that young people have to work so hard to protect our planet. That is one of the primary responsibilities of us adults and we should be ashamed at how we are failing at it.

I do feel like things are shifting though, that more and more people are taking the climate crisis and other environmental problems more seriously and that gives me hope.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m developing two climate crisis book projects as well as some lighter, more fun projects including a quirky picture book about art and a middle grade novel. I strive to have a balance between serious and fun in my work load whenever possible.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One thread that runs through all my books is hope. I want my books to be an inspiration to readers of all ages because I believe in the power and beauty of the human spirit and our ability to do amazing things in the world if we care and if we try.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Elizabeth Rusch.

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