May 13, 2020

Birth Stories for Books: A SEARCH FOR NORTHERN LIGHTS (and more!) by Elizabeth Rusch

Elizabeth and Izzi Rusch
(Image provided by Elizabeth Rusch)
Today's blog post is a trifecta for book-reading, book-creating, and book-loving folks. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing fellow author, Elizabeth Rusch, about three new books that just launched into the world (yep, THREE book launches in the midst of a global pandemic).

And all three books are great reading for right now, so let's get right to it:

Dawn Prochovnic: Thank you for stopping by the blog, Liz. If I remember correctly, we first met at a writing conference in the early stages of our publishing careers. Since that time, we’ve attended each other’s writing workshops and book launch events and even collaborated on some projects and events. It’s been exciting to watch your career flourish— and it’s been enjoyable to share many of your books with the young readers in my life. I’ve also greatly appreciated the doors you’ve opened for me that have led to some of my own publishing credits. It is privilege to have an opportunity to shine a light on some of your latest books.

Speaking of light, let’s start by talking about your book, A SEARCH FOR THE NORTHERN LIGHTS, which just came out in April by a publisher we both work with, West Margin Press (co-written by Izzi Rusch and illustrated by Cedar Lee). Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication for this particular story? For example, I’d love to hear about the process and timeframe between your initial idea and the story that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor.

By Elizabeth Rusch, Izzi Rusch, and Cedar Lee

Elizabeth Rusch: My teenager Izzi homeschooled for 8th grade and after witnessing the total solar eclipse we talked about other natural wonders we would like to see. We started talking about and researching the northern lights and decided to take a trip to Alaska to see if we could spot them, as well as do some hiking and exploring there. We found a few days when a magnetic storm was expected and planned our trip around that. It was raining when we landed and overcast much of time. But we had fun trying and experiencing all that Alaska had to offer while we were there. Then, while on the phone with an editor at West Margin, I told her about the experience and that we were committed to trying until we saw the northern lights. She thought it was a great idea for a book, so I wrote a proposal and she signed it. We had the year of homeschooling to search.

DP: What a great backstory, Liz. And what a fantastic goal for you and Izzi to set your sights on, together.

When you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in the published book, what stands out for you in terms of what is most different?

ER: Well, Izzi and I traveled to Iceland to see the northern lights but didn’t see more that a slight glow and green arc there (there were blizzards shutting down the country most of the time we were there). We included that experience in the first draft, but the narrative of it was so similar to the Alaska trip (and we thought most readers would not get to travel to Iceland) so we all agreed it needed to be cut (except for an extensive thank you to the wonderful family that hosted us there.)

DP: Wow, you really took this quest seriously. That's really inspiring. 

I'd also be interested to know if there is anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

ER: We were glad that though the story is about a search for the northern lights, it captures many of the other amazing outdoor experiences we had while searching. You can only search for the northern lights at night so we had many daylight hours to do other things. We were glad that we got to keep that part of the story in because they were such an important, and unexpected, part of the experience.

DP: That's great that you were able to experience so many adventures with Izzi and that you were able to keep that element of your experience in the story. 

What was it like collaborating with your teenager on this book?

ER: Izzi and I learned a ton about each other by writing this book together. We learned that it worked best to divide the book into sections and work separately on drafting different sections. That worked better than sitting down and trying to write together because we are both pretty opinionated. We made notes to each other on the first draft and each did some revisions on our parts. Only then did we merge our pieces together. We each read separately and made more notes and then sat down together in front of the computer and edited. These discussions were lively, passionate and full of humor. Even though I was a well-published author, I had to take her ideas and reactions seriously and address them. It was challenging but I really believe it helped us make a better book.

DP: It sounds like a memorable experience all around, Liz. 

You have another picture book that also launched in April: GIDGET THE SURFING DOG (Little Bigfoot). When you compare the path to publication for these two books,  what are some of the key similarities and differences in terms of the publication journeys for each?

By Elizabeth Rusch
ER: Well, the Gidget book is a follow-up of sorts to a book that published last year with Little Bigfoot called Avalanche Dog Heroes: Piper and Friends Learn to Search the Snow. With the northern lights book Izzi and I had to create something from scratch. With the Gidget book I had a really great model to build on. I wanted a gripping story about a real dog learning and striving to develop a skill accompanied by lively photos and lots of science diagrams. So I knew while reporting the book what elements I wanted and could identify immediately when I found them.

(Images provided by Elizabeth Rusch)

DP: Wow, Liz, if those photos don't hook a reader, I don't know what will!

You also have a very timely book for teens and young adults that came out in March: YOU CALL THIS DEMOCRACY?: HOW TO FIX OUR GOVERNMENT AND DELIVER POWER TO THE PEOPLE (HMH). Not only is this book for a different age range and audience, but it’s with a different publisher. Have there been notable differences in the publication processes for this book as compared to the others?

By Elizabeth Rusch
ER: In some ways, I’ve been writing the democracy book for more than 20 years. In the mid-1990s I got a masters in public policy and then spent a year working as a fellow in the U.S. Senate. Then I turned back to writing. My husband used to tease me that I wasn’t using my masters, and I used to joke back that I use it every day when I read the news! And that was really true. Over two decades I was reading and filing away in my mind all the ways that our democracy falls short of the promise of one person, one vote. Americans have become increasingly discontent with how our government functions, and I wanted to pull all this together into a book. And I wanted to aim it at young adults and new adults because I believe deeply in their power to change the world.

I pitched the idea to my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and she asked for a proposal. It was remarkably easy to write the proposal because these ideas had been floating around in my mind for two decades.

But, writing the book? Not so easy! I had to delve deeply into so many different issues – the electoral college, gerrymandering, the role of money in politics, etc. I had to be accurate and engaging, and I had less than a year to write it so that it would come out in time for the 2020 presidential election year.

DP: I'm so glad that young readers (and voters!) will have this book available to reference ahead of the 2020 election and many elections to come. Thanks so much for writing it! 

One of my favorite parts of being an author is connecting with young readers at schools, libraries, and bookstore visits, and I’m always looking for new pro tips. You maintain a very active schedule of book-related events. What advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/presenters in terms of planning successful events? (Note: This question was asked and answered in a pre-Covid19 frame of mind.)

ER: For book store events, I believe we have to do more than just read from our books. We have to offer something more that will draw people to the store. That could be a visit from a celebrity surfing dog, hands-on science activities, or advice for writers or parents.

For school visits, I think that taking a storytelling approach is really fun and effective. After all, we writers are storytellers, so finding ways to say what you want to say through a series of stories can keep the audience – and you – engaged.

DP: Excellent advice, Liz. 

You have a lot of creative projects competing for your attention. How do you balance the time between your different projects and the different aspects of the publishing business?

ER: At the end of each year, I make a list of projects in the works and project ideas and try to sketch out a game plan. Sometimes I break it up by months, such as: This month I’ll work on research for this project, while writing a draft of that one, while revising a third.

Even though I am a full time writer, I actually find it difficult to find time to write. So I have to block out clusters of days when I will try to do nothing but write. I do some of my best writing at writing retreats with my critique group members. It works best if there is no internet to distract me!

DP: More excellent advice, Liz! 

You have great resources for readers and educators on your website, and you publish an occasional newsletter, which I’m sure also takes a fair amount of time to keep up with. For those of us who might be pondering if it’s worthwhile to create these types of supplementary materials, what are the pluses and minuses of these types of reader outreach, from your perspective?

ER: It’s funny, I know my website is supposed to be for the wider world but it also acts as a resource to me. If I need a good description of one of my books, I pull it from my website. When I win an award, I immediately add it to my website so that may be the only place where I have a complete list of my accolades.

The newsletter does take time, but what I love about it are the replies that I get when I send it out. With a website, you have no idea who is looking at it and how they respond. With a newsletter, I have a dialog with my readers and peers so it helps me feel more connected.

DP: That's a great point, Liz. I had not thought about the feedback loop aspect of a newsletter. 

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your pre-published self? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier?

ER: A career in writing is a long-term proposition that requires an enormous amount of commitment and a willingness to roll with the punches.  There will be setbacks and it is healthier to expect them then to be caught by surprise.

DP: That is so true! 

Before we wrap up, is there something you wish someone would ask you about your path to publication for your latest books and/or one or more of your other books, that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet?

ER: I think one key to sticking with it and staying sane it to try to love the process itself. I try to find joy in the generation of ideas, the development of ideas, the research and what I get to read and where I get to go and who I get to talk to, and the creativity of putting words and stories on the page. You don’t have control over the publishing process. Publishing can bring some disappointment and grief, so focus on loving what you do and being grateful that you get to do this amazing work.

DP: That's such an uplifting, encouraging, inspiring perspective, Liz. Thanks for that. 

Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on?

ER: I’m developing some new projects related to climate change and I have a really cool collaboration with illustrator Liz Goss called All about Nothing, about the role of nothingness in art and in our lives. Wish me luck!

DP: Good luck, indeed! I look forward to seeing those projects come to fruition. 

Thanks for sharing your Birth Story for Books (X3!) with us, Liz. I've learned so much from you. 

Fun Fact, Readers: Alice Brereton, the amazing illustrator for Liz’s book, GLACIER ON THE MOVE, is in the process of illustrating one of my next books, LUCY’S BLOOMS (due out in 2021). Stay tuned for more exciting news about this project!

Photo Provided by Elizabeth Rusch
Elizabeth Rusch is the author of twenty books for young readers, as well as more than a hundred magazine articles. Liz’s works are frequently honored by the Junior Library Guild, have received multiple starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, The Horn Book, Booklist, School Library Journal, the BCCB, and have been named best book or notable book of the year by ALA, Bank Street, SLJ, Kirkus, the NSTA, CCBC, Nonfiction Detectives, and the New York Public Library, among others. New in March and April are: You Call THIS Democracy? How to fix our government and deliver power to the people; A Search for the Northern Lights; and Gidget the Surfing Pug. Learn more about Liz and her work at and Connect with her on Facebook at authorelizabethrusch and on twitter at @elizabethrusch.

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at

May 7, 2020

Birth Stories for Books: Nita's Day, by Kathy MacMillan

I am so delighted to bring you today's interview with Kathy MacMillan. Kathy and I have several interests in common including kidlit, libraries and American Sign Language. I first interviewed Kathy in 2014, and she has featured my work on her information-rich blog a couple of times (my potty-humor books, here and my Story Time with Signs and Rhymes series, here). Today, we get the inside scoop on Kathy's Little Hands Signing series, just in time for the publication of a new board book in that series, NITA'S DAY (illustrated by Sara Brezzi, Familius Press, May, 2020).

Dawn Prochovnic: What was the inspiration for the Little Hands Signing series?

Kathy MacMillan: I had previously published a book for parents about signing with children ages birth to six, titled Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together. In the fall of 2016, I was promoting that book at the Baltimore Book Festival, when David Miles, then the publishing director at Familius Press, approached me and invited me to pitch them other ideas of this topic. Familius specializes in books for families, so they were an ideal home for books about signing with children – which is all about communication and bonding! I pitched them several ideas, but the one that stood out was a board book series about a little girl named Nita who signs with her parents.

What excites me most about the series is that it features stories about a family. It shows how communicating through American Sign Language improves their everyday lives. Many of the board books about signing with young children focus only on vocabulary. But in this series, I really wanted to show the how as well as the what. I also really wanted to create a series that could be enjoyed equally by hearing, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing readers.

DP: I really love your vision for the series, Kathy. Can you share some backstory about the journey from “book idea” to “book publication?”

KM: Right from the beginning, David and I discussed having some interactive element to the book – flaps or moving parts. The series was always conceived as having the story on the main spreads, supplemented by sign instruction (through illustrations and text) on each page. It was David’s brilliant idea to use the slide-open format to have the sign illustration appear. Not only does it fit the theme perfectly (because effective communication underlies everything the family does!), but it makes the books far sturdier than the life-the-flap format would be. I have heard from many parents and librarians that their copies of Nita’s First Signs have stood up to months of readings by eager babies and toddlers.

DP: Yes, the format is brilliant, and the illustrations are gorgeous. As we both know, conveying a three-dimensional language via two-dimensional pictures can be very challenging. Can you share what went into the illustration process to “get it right” to your satisfaction?

KM: Normally, the author has very little say in the illustrations of a picture book. That often surprises readers. But it’s actually quite unusual for the author and illustrator to have any contact at all in a traditionally published picture book!

I knew from the beginning that approach would never work here. Because most of the people involved in the publishing process did not know American Sign Language, it was crucial that I be consulted at each stage. When Familius agreed to that up front, and even put it in the contract, I knew they were serious about creating a quality product. Because there has been so much misinformation spread about American Sign Language and Deaf Culture, it was vital that we get this right.

And then, when David told me that Sara Brezzi had been selected to do the illustrations, I knew we were on the same page. Sara’s bright, cheery style was perfect for the tone of the books.

I provided detailed instructions and video links for each of the signs, and Sara sent me her sketches of the illustrations as she went. I would give feedback at each stage to make sure we were conveying them accurately. Sometimes we went through two, three, or even ten rounds of back and forth before we worked out the kinks!

In addition, we also had an ASL/Deaf Culture Advisor review each book before going to press. This was a native ASL user who could advise about any problems or misleading information that had slipped through the cracks. I was honored to have renowned Deaf Culture researcher Dr. Barbara Kannapell serve in this role for Nita’s First Signs and Deaf filmmaker and educator Jevon Whetter serve in this role for Nita’s Day.

DP: It is clear that a great deal of care has gone into these books. It used to be there were only a handful of books that incorporated sign language. Now there are many. What would you love to hear a bookseller saying as they handsell Nita’s First Signs or Nita’s Day?

KM: I would love for them to emphasize that learning how to communicate is a young child’s most important job, as it is how they get their other needs met. I would love for them to talk about how these books show how a young child can initiate communication and how much easier it makes the whole family’s life as a result. And that signing with your child sends the crucial message that you are interested in knowing what they have to say!

DP. Yes! Yes! and Yes! 

What would be your dream book review for Nita’s First Signs or Nita’s Day? Who would this review be from? And where would this review be published or posted?

KM: While I love every single review from hearing parents who say how fascinated their babies and toddlers are with the books, and how much they themselves have learned from them, the ones that touch my heart most are from members of the Deaf community. As a librarian and a book reviewer, I have seen so many inaccurate, misleading, and sometimes downright harmful representations of ASL and Deaf Culture. So it was very important to me to get this right. And the reaction of the Deaf community to the first book has been overwhelmingly positive. Recently at a signing, a Deaf woman carefully scrutinized every word and picture in the book and then looked at me and signed, “Thank you for this. This is wonderful.” I swear my heart grew three sizes!

DP: That's beautiful, Kathy. I'm so glad to hear that! What resources and/or next steps would you suggest for readers who want more

KM: Check out the series website at! I have compiled lots of videos, links, articles and more that will be of interest to parents, teachers, and librarians alike!

DP: Youza! That's a great collection of resources! And thanks for including my Story Time with Signs & Rhymes series on your list of Picture Books about ASL and Deaf Culture.

Speaking of resources, are there more Nita books in the works that we should be on the lookout for? 

KM: Yes! We plan to publish several more books in the series, each on a theme such as food signs, family signs, bedtime signs, or seasonal signs.

DP: I'm so glad to hear that. Now for one of my favorite questions: What have I not asked that you would love for people to know?

KM: I would love readers to know that, in addition to the Little Hands Signing books, I also write nonfiction for children and adults and young adult fantasy. My most recent book is She Spoke: 14 Women Who Raised Their Voices and Changed the World (Familius Press, 2019). This book, co-authored with Manuela Bernardi and illustrated by Kathrin Honesta, features built-in sound clips where you get to hear the voices of 14 amazing women at the touch of a button!

DP: What a timely and innovative book! 

What is the best way for readers to get in touch with you or get their hands on your books?

KM: You can contact me through my website at You can also find purchase links for all my books there. They are all available through the usual online booksellers, but you can also purchase signed and personalized copies of all my books at the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore. Deaf Camps, Inc. is a an entirely volunteer-run nonprofit organization that provides communication-rich camps for Deaf and hard of hearing children and children learning American Sign Language, and I have been a proud volunteer and board member for the last 18 years. All proceeds from books purchased through the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore support Deaf Camps, Inc.’s scholarship program. So it’s a great way to purchase great gifts and support a great cause!

DP: I will also say they have one of the most magnificent logos I have ever seen (readers, you will need to pop on over to the links above to see it for yourself!)

Thank you so much for stopping by the blog, Kathy. Best wishes for a successful launch of Nita's Day!

KM: Thanks for having me on your site, Dawn!  And happy signing, everyone!

Purchase Nita’s First Signs at Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore (autographed copies that support a great cause!) | | | | (use code BOOKS for 20% off)

Purchase Nita’s Day at | | | Deaf Camps, Inc. online bookstore (signed and personalized copies available starting May 12, 2020.) | (use code BOOKS for 20% off)

Join Kathy MacMillan online on Tuesday, May 12 to celebrate the launch of Nita's Day!
11 AM Eastern/8AM Pacific: ASL Storytime on Facebook Live at

2 PM Eastern/11 AM Pacific: Spoken English Storytime on Facebook Live at

Kathy MacMillan (she/her) is a writer, American Sign Language interpreter, librarian, signing storyteller, and avowed Hufflepuff.  She writes picture books (the Little Hands Signing series, Familius Press), children’s nonfiction (She Spoke: 14 Women Who Raised Their Voices and Changed the World, Familius Press), and young adult fantasy (Sword and Verse and Dagger and Coin, both HarperTeen). She has also published many resource books for educators, librarians, and parents. Kathy serves as the co-Regional Advisor for the Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia Region of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She lives near Baltimore, MD. Find her online at: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram   

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to Oregon Reads Aloud and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at