In a world where Ronald McDonald once led kids to believe that hamburgers grow in “hamburger patches,” it can be tricky business explaining to kids where the meat for their hot dog, bacon or turkey sandwich comes from.
Ruby Roth’s That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals is a wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated children’s book that honestly but sensitively explains the facts of meat production and the notion that animals are sentient individuals. The book is a dream for veg parents who want to explain to their kids (as the title says) “why we don’t eat animals.” It’s also controversial for parents who don’t want their kids to know the truth about meat.
I asked Ruby some questions about her wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated book, as well as the response it got:
Kayla Coleman: How did the idea for your book That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals come about? Can you give us a brief description of what it’s about?
Ruby Roth: In 2005 I was teaching art at an elementary school and my students were always curious why I wasn’t drinking the milk or chowing down on the string cheese they were served at recess. When I carefully explained my choices as a vegan, they were actually really interested and had a lot of questions. So I searched for a children’s book to bring them, but couldn’t find one that wasn’t sugarcoated or that didn’t anthropomorphize animals or vegetables — the kids were too street-smart for that. I decided to create one myself, about the emotional lives of animals, factory farming, the environment, and endangered species — all in regards to the foods we eat.
KC: How did you become vegan? Did you learn about the treatment of animals used for food when you were young?
RR: I had a very progressive, liberal, eco-friendly upbringing — my mom was vegetarian, my parents had an organic farm, I got into anti-authoritarian punk rock as a teen, went to UC Santa Cruz, even lived with vegans there….yet it NEVER occurred to me to go vegan myself. This is the power of the meat and dairy industry! I went vegan when I was 20, when a friend challenged me to do it as a health experiment (I used to get tonsillitis multiple times a year). And I stopped getting sick. In fact, I felt so good and loved the transformation so much that I never went back. And then watching the film Earthlings rocked my worldview, too, and solidified my commitment to animals.
KC: The book got some mixed reactions — some people thought it was propaganda that would corrupt and scar kids. Can you tell us about some of the negative and positive reactions?
RR: The negative responses were nearly all the same — concerns about brainwashing, propaganda, scaring children and not allowing kids to have the choice to eat meat. I used every critique to formulate a positive and public response. Meanwhile, I grew more confident about my book because I was reading it to groups of kids and never once experienced a child who was overwhelmed or scared. What I found was that kids responded with great insight, questions and interest, and that it was only ever the adults who freaked out — most likely in fear of change.
KC: Did you have any concerns when writing the book? About traumatizing kids or, since you were working as an elementary school art teacher at the time, even losing your job?
RR: Absolutely. When kids first started asking me questions, I felt like a communist in the McCarthy era — that my answers would get me fired if the children reported to their parents. But there’s nothing illegal about talking about dietary habits. It’s the job of the teacher to provide information. I realized that if I treated their questions like any that a student might ask of a teacher, then I would avoid creating a “taboo” subject. And even IF a parent was angry, or refused to cater to an interested kid at home, that a seed was planted, the word defined for future reference. No one could be validly mad at me for teaching vocabulary.
KC: At the Animal Rights National Conference, you talked about America’s unique idea of “childhood” and how kids don’t need to be as coddled as they are. Can you tell us more about that?
RR: In the west, we think of children as innocent, pure and frail, and treat them accordingly — sugarcoating everything, and avoiding teaching “too much” for their minds. But this concept of childhood is not universal. In other countries, children are treated with various levels of respect for their capabilities, which also differ according to cultural beliefs. My experience of teaching is that sugarcoating information only hinders what a child is capable of — psychologically, emotionally and even spiritually.
KC: Were there any children or parents of children who read the book and then told you they wanted to become vegetarian or vegan?
RR: Yes, there were students of mine who wanted to go vegan, for example. And I saw parents pat them on the back and smile. I imagine that the parents probably cooked some veg meals at home a few times, but lacking info and support, lost interest in keeping it up for their kids. But the most important part is that the seed was planted. The child knows what the word means forever after (I certainly didn’t when I was in elementary school) and you never know what they might do with that information in the future.
KC: Do you have any words of wisdom for parents whose kids say they want to be vegetarian or vegan?
RR: I can understand a parents’ fear of change if they’re not familiar with veganism. But there’s so much supportive information out now and it’s so easily accessible. If your child shows interest, I think it’s the parent’s responsibility to collect information, ameliorate their own fears, and help the child feel empowered by their insight into food and animals. It’s just the worst to see a parent forcing a crying child to eat meat — I’ve seen it — when the solution is simply a few facts the parents need demystified about protein, for example. Especially when there is an abundance of healthier, cleaner, more absorbable, cruelty-free choices that child could be thriving on.
KC: Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
RR: My man, urban artist and vegan Justin Bua and I just launched our blog www.WeBeVegan.com and I’m working on my next children’s book, due out next year. Stay tuned at www.WeDontEatAnimals.com! Thank you for your support!
Here is a video of kids’ reactions to Ruby’s book That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals: