Simon Boughton has been a pillar of children’s publishing over the past 30 years, during which he spent more than a decade each in leading positions at Random House and Macmillan. He also founded Roaring Brook Press, where books he edited and published include Caldecott Medal winners My Friend Rabbit and The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. Currently publishing director of Norton Young Readers, Boughton assumes the mantle of children’s book author on March 12, when his debut title, The Wild River and the Great Dam: The Construction of Hoover Dam and the Vanishing Colorado River, will be released by Little, Brown’s Christy Ottaviano Books. In a recent conversation, Boughton discussed the genesis of his book; information he uncovered—in turn spectacular and sobering—while researching and writing the history of the Hoover Dam; and what potentially lies ahead for the once raging, now diminished Colorado River and its environs.

What was your impetus for writing The Wild River and the Great Dam?

The book probably began with my childhood fascination with big things built by big machines. And as an adult I am still fascinated with big enterprises, mechanical things, and engineering. I was drawn to the idea of building something on the scale of Hoover Dam, and the audacity involved in the thinking that humans could engineer a whole environment with machinery that was newly available. This was such an engaging and remarkable construction story and the idea of writing a book on the subject appealed to me—and so I decided to do it.

Had you visited the site of Hoover Dam before deciding to write about it, and if so, did viewing it further ignite your curiosity about its story?

I first visited several years ago—during a publishing conference in Las Vegas, as it happens!—and was struck by how “permanent” Hoover Dam and Lake Mead seem—as if they’re part of the landscape and have always been there. But of course they haven’t, and I wondered what the land and the world around were like before. I also knew a little about the dam’s place in the folklore around the Great Depression, so was curious about the reality behind that.

I then visited Hoover and several of the other dams on the Colorado River during the research for the book. Even knowing more about their impact on the landscape and their contradictory stories, I’m still struck—and awed—by their presence and strange beauty. Visiting Hoover Dam at dawn and watching the sun come up over the canyon is quite an experience.

Do you think that you approached the subject of the book with more objectivity than a U.S. native would, since you are British?

I don’t know that I would say that. I would say as a European I find the American experience so fascinating and so unlike the European experience. I think Europeans are drawn to the American West because it’s so magnificent, and because you can still see the past—it’s so close in time. It’s a history that I am not part of as a newcomer, and a history that I find complicated and engaging.

How did you come to publish the book with Christy Ottaviano Books?

Christy and I were colleagues at Macmillan for several years, and I know her as a wonderful, passionate editor. I also knew she has an interest in nonfiction, and at the time I was outlining the book she was starting her new imprint at Little, Brown. So, I took a chance and wrote to see if she’d be interested in reading the proposal.

[It's] a complicated story, full of contradiction and consequence, and in many ways, it didn't turn out the way the dam builders expected it to.

Did you encounter any surprises as you researched the genesis and building of Hoover Dam?

There were a couple of things that I knew less about and took me beyond these childhood fascinations—and that I think make this a larger, more compelling, and timely story.

One was the social history involved. This dam was built in the 1930s, and a remarkable record exists of people building it, in the form of oral histories and thousands of photographs, which paint a vivid picture of the time and place. It was the Great Depression, and the project drew people who were not just construction workers, but people who were desperate for work. Whole families moved to the desert for the project. Many remained after it was finished, and what was planned as a construction camp became a town and a community.

How did those archival records help deepen your knowledge of the hands-on mechanics of the building of the dam?

I was pleased to discover that there were transcripts and tapes, which contained the voices of individuals who were part of the dam’s construction crew, as well as families and others, describing what the building process was like and the difficulties involved, including the exploitation of the laborers.

Did you unearth any unexpected revelations?

I came to understand Hoover Dam as, in a way, the technical expression of this idea of manifest destiny, that white European people were supposed to settle the West and move into a world that was previously occupied by Indigenous people. Most of the American West is arid, and white settlement meant figuring out how to get water out of the ground and manage its supply—something that was done with almost no thought or regard for Indigenous people, or for the environment.

That is a complicated story, full of contradiction and consequence, and in many ways, it didn’t turn out the way the dam builders expected it to. In the early 20th century, it seemed like a good idea not to “waste” water by letting it flow into the ocean, but this water management system devised in the 20th century is not sustainable in the 21st century. At its heart, this book is an engineering story, a social history, and a story of how we use resources.

A metaphor for this, if you like, are the “mudbergs” that I discovered actually lie under the surface of the Colorado River reservoirs—great mounds of silt that move around unpredictably, out of sight beneath the surface of the water. They’re like the unforeseen consequences of actions we take that we don’t fully understand, and the consequences of trying to control nature.

The word “contradictions” surfaces repeatedly as you talk about the Hoover Dam project and its ramifications.

I was lucky to work on several books with author Steve Sheinkin, who once said to me that the best stories from history are stories of contradiction. I think that’s why the story of Hoover Dam makes for such good storytelling.

Yet for all these contradictions, there is also something remarkable about the human spirit and enterprise that built Hoover Dam. One hundred years after the building of the dam, we have vast new problems in terms of climate change and management of resources, but I’d like to think that if we can bring together the same ingenuity, sense of common purpose, and vision, those problems can be overcome.

In what ways do you hope The Wild River and the Great Dam will help effect that?

I hope this book leads to conversation. I want to have readers think about the impact of what we are doing and to get them thinking about sustainability—about how the salad on your plate at lunchtime gets there and why we are able to have so many things that we take for granted.

As a longtime publisher and editor, did your debut experience as an author whet your appetite for writing additional works for young readers?

Yes, it did. I started this book a while ago, and I really enjoyed being on the other side of the process. I love writing but I haven’t had enough time to devote to it. I do have some thoughts about another book—I think there’s a related story that I am interested in telling, one that also touches on the notion of an idea we have at a moment in time seeming like a good idea, but not turning out as we had anticipated.

The Wild River and the Great Dam: The Construction of Hoover Dam and the Vanishing Colorado River by Simon Boughton. Little, Brown/Ottaviano, $19.99 Mar. 12 ISBN 978-0-316-38074-4