Ruby Roth. Remember that name, as you’ll be hearing a lot more about her. An American teacher, writer and artist, Roth has come up with an innovative and somewhat controversial solution for helping children foster compassion towards animals – tell them the truth. Don’t terrify or shame them, but with kindness, whimsy and age-appropriate imagery, show children that animals are sentient beings.
Roth’s new book That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals: A Book About Vegans, Vegetarians, and All Living Things is the first book of its kind targeted toward young people. A candid, but gentle book that discusses what are normally considered taboo subjects for children, such as factory farming, battery hen cages, overfishing, habitat erosion, rainforest health and endangered species in relation to food.
We caught up with Ruby Roth to ask her a few questions about writing the first book for kids that deals honestly with the plight of animals and if it was difficult to find a publisher for her cutting edge work.
Tell us a bit about That's Why We Don't Eat Animals.
This is the first children’s book to address the emotional lives of animals, factory farming, the environment, and endangered species all in regard to the food we eat. The overriding message is about being aware of our connection to all living beings and thus the extensive impact our choices have across the planet.
Why did you decide to write the book?
I was teaching art at an elementary school and the kids were always asking why I never ate the string cheese or milk snacks they were served at recess. They were sincerely interested in my answers and many told me they wanted to go vegan. One 5th grader said “I don’t even like honey, so I’m going to be extreme!” But there was no support system in their school cafeteria, and I couldn’t find a book on the subject that wasn’t based on a talking animal or vegetable —which I felt they were too smart for. And I had heard that the education of children was the major factor in the success of recycling programs in Los Angeles. Kids learned about it and went home to “radicalize” their parents! I was motivated by the potential support the book might provide and the activism it might inspire.
How did you approach writing the book?
I wanted to provide factual, emotional ideas that children relate to. My experience is that children don’t require the sugarcoating they usually get. They respond with great intelligence to facts and in turn, a powerful sense of self-empowerment. And yes, I did tons of research! Although the book is written in simple language, it is in fact comprised of factual, ethological information. I can tell from some of the mainstream reviews that the reader thought I was projecting human qualities onto animals, but that isn’t the case. As author Henry Beston said of animals, “They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations…” I wanted to spark the identification of both the emotional similarities and incredible differences between ourselves and animals, the idea being that either would inspire compassion.
What is the intended audience and target age of the book?
I intended for the book to be a resource for vegan and vegetarian families but also a tool to explain to non-veg kids why their friends might not eat animals. The official age range is 4-10, but because this is the only book of its kind, the range is turning out to be broader…I say ages 0-100!
Do you think this book will only be popular with vegan and vegetarian families or will have a wider reach?
It will be biggest with the green demographics. But anyone might enjoy the artwork. And you could say the subject matter is like any other book that teaches how people around the world choose to live. It’s an educational tool for any child.
What do you want children to take away after reading your book?
A sense of connectedness to animals and the environment—to feel that we have both a place and power in this web of life because our choices ripple out into the world. I’ve seen this idea inspire kids with a great sense self-empowerment. They respond with great intelligence and learn to choose wisely. This kind of upbringing extends beyond veganism into all facets of life…and it lasts a lifetime.
Was it a difficult subject to write about?
Yes! My first draft was a 4,000 word picture book! Haha! I just had to get all the heaviness out of my head before I could pare it down. And then it was a matter of tempering these devastating realities without sugarcoating or losing the impact. And while I think many children can handle even the barest of truths, I had no intention of evoking fear. So I took care to make the text and images mild and manageable for a child’s capacity.
Do you think the illustrations and animal characters help children better engage with the topics covered in your book?
In the process of becoming vegan, it was visual information—photos and the film Earthlings—that really solidified my commitment. The mind doesn’t always believe until it sees evidence. So I knew the paintings would be crucial to the message of the book. I think even if there were no words to explain the details, the illustrations would still convey the magical world of free animals and the sadness of factory farms.
Often adults can become quite defensive when the subject of meat consumption or factory farming comes up. Is it different when talking with children?
It is absolutely different! Children are entirely more open and receptive to the idea of sparing the lives of animals. And it’s not because they are merely influenced by the “cuteness” of animals. It’s that they haven’t been on earth long enough to develop deep-seated emotional attachments to meat or to be so shaped by the moral tyranny of the majority.
Do you think children better understand compassion for animals and each other?
Most certainly. Whether or not we are born innately peaceful beings, I think it’s safe to say that for most, it’s painful to witness the torture or suffering another being. I think the difference between adults and children is that as adults, we don’t often allow ourselves to be touched by those feelings. By the time we are grown, we’ve learned to disconnect to some things so as not be overwhelmed. We become desensitized to everything from violence to the way cooked, dead, junk food makes us feel. But kids function from a much more instinctual and thus responsive place.
How are people responding to your book?
People across the world are very excited and have been very loving and supportive. And children have showed incredible interest and insight. I have not experienced one child who became overwhelmed or freaked out. I think they enjoy being let in on what seemed to have been a “secret” kept from them. They feel empowered by the truth. I say in the book that each day, we have the freedom to change our lives. I think this is a very important concept for any child or adult to absorb—and one to emphasize when you read the book to a kid: we do not have to fear things that we have the power to change.
Was it difficult to find a publisher?
I wish I could replace the forest of trees that became my rejection letters. Everyone thought it was too subversive a subject for children. I realized there is a pervasive notion about children that smallness equals frailty, which I find insulting to the astuteness I’ve witnessed. And newsflash! There are nations of vegans and vegetarians! Lucky for me, North Atlantic Books and Random House saw the relevance and timeliness of the subject and had the backbone and spirit to move forward.
Were you ever told to "tone it down" or change imagery?
Actually, in the beginning, the factory farm illustrations were lighter and less dirty. But in test readings, I found that children were mistaking crowding for “cuddling,” so I made the final paintings more literal. A Kirkus review called the illustrations “unsubtle” but they were created that way in direct response to the way children think.
Do you have any future books planned?
Yes, I’m thinking about book two and three already. So stay tuned. There will be more children’s books to come concerning our impact on the planet and the empowerment of children.
Order this book on Amazon.com - That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals