An Interview with Ecologist & Children’s Book Author Elise Gornish

Elise Gornish is a life member of ESA and a founder of the Ecological Restoration Section. She was elected an Early Career Fellow of the Society in 2019.

In June, she published her first children’s book, what she believes is the first children’s book on ecological restoration. A Kids’ Guide to Ecological Restoration is available via Amazon.

ESA: What was it that motivated you to want to write a children’s book about ecological restoration?

Elise Gornish. Photo by Martha Lochert.

Gornish: I have nephews, and I was searching for something online one of their birthdays when he was turning seven. And I was like, Okay, seven is a time that I feel like kids can start learning more nuances about the world, and I feel like ecological restoration is one of those more nuanced topics. I was searching on Amazon, and I was blown away that there wasn’t any book on ecological restoration for kids! Considering the fact that the UN Decade on Ecological Restoration is the next 10 years and we as adults have been doing a pretty horrific job in terms of managing and protecting and restoring our planet, maybe the only people we can even rely on now are the children.

Maybe it sounds crazy, but I think it’s a really important topic for kids to know about and be aware of, but it’s also one of the things that probably doesn’t come up very often in their science classes. They might be learning about climate change and all this doom-and-gloom stuff, just a wall of negative—true, but negative—information about the planet, and I don’t think it’s often accompanied by this sort of secondary, supplemental message that, actually, there are things we can do.

I work with a lot of high school and college students, and I’m blown away by how many high school students don’t know what ecological restoration is. They couldn’t name it, and when you start talking about it, they’re like, “Oh, like picking up garbage and stuff.” And you’re like, Yes, that’s part of it, but. Clearly there’s been an absence in learning.

So I thought it was important to give them the tools they need to be the best versions of themselves and maybe grown up into people who can help us not destroy everything.

Cover of A Kids Guide to Ecological Restoration.

ESA: It’s interesting that you reference the climate doomism that’s out there, and that you can put a hopeful air into your book because there really are things we can do.

Gornish: Right, and in the past, we’ve done it. We closed the hole in the ozone. We did it together and stopped buying the very things that were contributing to the hole. They’re small wins, but they are there. People need to know that. You can feel helpless and stop recycling, like, “Who cares? I’m going to go build war machines.” So getting to the kids young, I just feel that’s really important.

ESA: What was the process you went through to write this book? You mentioned earlier that you don’t have experience writing children’s books.

Gornish: I give a lot of talks on ecological restoration to people, and the main things that I talk about are active vs. passive restoration, large projects vs. small, and so on, so I took those main points and combined them with a hopeful tone. I just didn’t want a wall of numbers and data!

Then I took the book and sent it to a bunch of folks who work in 4-H Cooperative Extension. These are people who actually work with children regularly, and they gave me a lot of feedback on things like word choice and content. They pointed out particular kind of restoration projects, like, “That seems fun. How do I do that?” And I realized, we should have activities in the book! So we added a few at the end.

So essentially, the process was writing and mapping out the ideas, then talking with people with kids for feedback, and finally then showing it to kids.

ESA: So then what will those kids learn from reading the book or having it read to them?

Gornish: Hopefully they learn that this formalized thing that’s around specifically to make habitats that we’ve ruined better, and they can take part in it. They don’t have to get a PhD! At seven they can start planting native plants in the backyard and contribute to ecological restoration. I think it’s important for kids to learn that there’s this process out there that they can take part in it if they want.

ESA: You mentioned that you were searching for books on the topic and didn’t find any.

Gornish: Which is crazy! There are books like “Astrophysics for Babies,” which is great, other science books, and there are some conservation books for kids, but there’s no other ecological restoration book for kids, not a single one. I thought there’d be pages and pages of search results, and there aren’t. My brother is an engineer, so I know there are baby books for engineers.

So in addition to this book, my lab is now making an ecological restoration activity book for kids. It’ll be available for free by download. Something to give out at outreach events. We’re still working on it, but I put one page of it on Twitter and I got messages from people in, like, Nepal saying, “Can you please send this when it’s done? We have been looking for restoration activities for children.” And I’m thinking, How has no one made this?

I just happen to have amazing artists in my lab and one day during a meeting I was like, Let’s make an activity book, and they were like, Yeah! So this wasn’t a result of me investigating the marketplace or anything. But I’ve been getting emails from people, so there’s clearly a need and that need is not being filled. People in my lab have artistic skill, so people who are interested in ecological restoration can see this, and they’re into it and they want it.

ESA: Other than the activity book, do you have plans to tackle anything else?

Gornish: I do want to translate the children’s book, first into Spanish since I work near the border, and the illustrator is actually a grad student from Mexico, so she’ll be able to translate it quickly. The logistics of it, when you upload something in Amazon, it automatically goes to Amazon U.S. and to international Amazon  listings, so it can be sold in countries where the first language is not English.

But translation, that’s the next thing, and then we’ll see. I’m not a children’s author, I’m a cooperative extension specialist, and outreach is a big part of what I do. With the book, within Arizona at least, I’ve already gotten requests to do book readings for kids. And I’m like, Yeah, I can do that! Technically, my job pays me for that because I’m doing outreach to the kids. So I feel like I’ll be doing a bit of that, talking about native plants and reading to kids. How lucky am I? And we’ll see if that goes anywhere else. I don’t really have plans to build an empire in ecological restoration children’s things, though that seems cool when I say it out loud!

One of the grad students in the lab is the artist and she created a Restoration Cat, which will be this cat that’s on all of the material in the activity book, but I was thinking that maybe would make a Restoration Cat t-shirt and socks and stuffed animals, but that’s probably not going to happen. Maybe just for the lab. Maybe we can all get Restoration Cat tattoos.

ESA: If other ecologists or scientists in general wanted to write a children’s book or do something similar, what advice would you give them?

Gornish: This took a lot of time, so they should make sure they have an idea they really believe and that they can really spend a lot of time on. As a cooperative extension specialist, it’s mandated in my job that I’m expected to do outreach, so luckily I’m being rewarded by my job by creating this book. I’m very lucky in that sense. It’s not a side project per se; I have my experiments and all that, but I can do this, so I’m much luckier than the researcher who’s probably on the tenure track and expected to teach a bunch of classes and not traditionally rewarded for doing anything outside of our little sphere of science, publishing and peer review and all of that.

If you find an idea that you’re personally into and you know there’s an opportunity in the market—not another “Physics for Babies” since there’s a million of those—figure out if it’s something that you’re passionate about pursuing since it’s going to take much longer than you think. I went from “It’s a kids’ book, how hard can it be?” two years ago to just publishing now! Its because of all the things you don’t anticipate that you have to spend time on, especially if you don’t have any experience. I’m fortunate that I had a lot of people who helped me.

But beyond that, do it! Science communication, we all know how important it is, and this is one of the best ways to do it because you’re directly connecting with the very people that are going to grow up and be the next stewards of the planet.

ESA: The people who are going to see your book are our members and others in our community. Is there anything else that you would want folks to know about or think about?

Gornish: There are a lot of people in ESA who aren’t obsessed with ecological restoration like I am. And that’s okay! They’ll soon come into the fold. But ecological restoration is one of the fastest growing industries on the planet and it’s one of the most critical. It’s also very much connected to almost every other aspect of science—I work with microbial ecologists, I work with plant demographers, and so on. For anyone who is like, “Ecological restoration, that’s not my thing,” maybe it isn’t now, but I bet if you learned a little bit more about it, I bet it could be of interest to you and your family.

There’s this running joke with ecologists that right now everything has to be about climate change. Like every grant and every paper has to somehow relate back to climate change. And I would say the same thing about ecological restoration. Climate change is what’s ruining everything and we’re all responsible for it; ecological restoration, potentially, can halt and mitigate what’s been ruined so it’s also more hopeful.

Also, try to stay positive. We all tend to fall into this doom and gloom, like how climate depression is becoming a field in and of itself. But if we all fall into that way of thinking, then we’re lost. That’s one of the things I want to address with the book. I was talking with the illustrator, and she asked what I was thinking, and I just thought, bright colors, happy animals, let’s make this as hopeful as possible. If not, first of all, who’s going to want to read it? And second of all, that’s what ecological restoration is for, it’s the hope that we can change things back before we completely destroy them, and stop the degradation of the earth.