Ruby Roth is the author of That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals: A book about Vegans, Vegetarians, and all Living Things. It’s a delightful, beautifully illustrated guide to some of the world’s most pressing topics – from health to environment to animal protection – for children ages 4-10. I spoke with Ruby about the book recently.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I was teaching art at an elementary school, and the kids were always curious as to why I wasn’t eating the string cheese and milk they were being served at recess. Little by little, I started telling them my personal reasons. They were all so curious and interested in what I had to say. They wanted to know more and more about healthy foods – no lie!! I looked into finding a book that I could bring to them as a resource, but I couldn’t find one. So, I decided to create it myself.
The book addresses a lot of subjects we don’t see in children’s books, like factory farming, the environmental impact of eating animals, and the emotional lives of animals including fish. How did you decide what to include, and make it appropriate for elementary school-aged kids?
I wanted a complete book spanning from pets to farmland to the oceans. As for the emotional lives of animals, it’s the easiest starting-off point for children. You don’t really have to explain much else to them. We are born and raised loving animals. Almost every single book in the children’s section of a bookstore or library is about animals, but it’s usually anthropomorphized versions. My book is factual information regarding the emotional lives of animals. I think that kids really relate to that. We all do if we stop to take it in.
It was important to me to include fish. When you tell people you’re vegan, one of the frequently asked questions, after ‘where do you get your protein,’ is ‘does that mean you don’t eat fish?’ Right, a fish is not a vegetable; it’s an animal! Maybe it’s that fish look so different from us, people can’t imagine the harm and pain they endure. We see a lot of footage on factory farms that we can relate to on an emotional level, but we don’t often see how the fish are pulled out of the water. It’s gruesome.
You can’t talk about veganism without talking about some of these issues, like environmentalism. You can’t be a true environmentalist if you eat meat. I didn’t get too deep into it, but I wanted to address it enough so that families had a jumping-off point to have further conversations.
You’ve gotten criticized for covering factory farming, and leaving out other methods of animal farming. Did you consider including happy meat in your book?
I didn’t include a discussion on ethically harvested meat because I don’t believe such a thing exists. I focused on factory farms because it is the most imminent problem we are dealing with, and I wanted to focus on the biggest issue.
You don’t have to spell out every little issue for kids. The issue of grass-fed cows versus factory-farmed cows isn’t crossing their minds. When they learn that animals are harmed and eventually killed, they don’t try to justify their way around the facts. When they find that there are ways they can help the environment and save animals, action is not a question, it is a conclusion.
Clearly there must have been some obstacles on the path of publishing a children’s book on vegetarianism and veganism. What was the response from publishers when you were shopping the manuscript?
I didn’t think about the obstacles at first. I went and poured everything out from my brain to just get the information on paper. From there we edited until it was manageable for a child’s capacity. But because there was no book out there of its kind, I knew it would still be a hard sell. Factory farming alone is a topic that seems to be reserved for adults only. We can talk about and illustrate murder and violence in video games. We can talk about drumsticks and chicken wings and steaks all we want, but when we talk about dead animals, that seems to be a whole different story as to what people think is appropriate for children. As far as my experience with my own students and other kids who have come to book signings, I’ve never encountered one child who was freaked out or overwhelmed by the information – only the adults.
Most publishers thought the subject matter was too hardcore for children. They thought it would be seen as dogmatic, that it would scare children. But there is nothing in my book that could compare to the imagery had I used real photographs from factory farms instead of illustrations. And in my opinion, if meat, and where it comes from, is too scary to talk about, then it’s too scary to eat. And I feel that children have every right to know what they’re eating and where it comes from. They don’t always know that the chicken on their plate is actually a chicken because that fact is often hidden from them – and what’s the point? So they be quiet and eat their protein? I think it’s wrong to hide the facts. And if a child does not want to eat animals, that should be honored.
There were many publishers who were afraid it wouldn’t be successful, but the fact is, there are millions of people around , and throughout history, who have thrived on a vegan diet. There are many religions that adopt that lifestyle because it’s a lifestyle of nonviolence.
How did you come to veganism?
It started as a health experiment. I was getting tonsillitis six to eight times a year. One summer I went vegan, and mostly raw. Since then, I’ve never had tonsillitis. I felt my energy soar, I was sleeping less, jumping out of bed in the morning, lost some weight, which helped my back. It was like taking off a heavy jacket and starting to run. I was so excited by what I felt I had been looking for my whole life, that it stuck. Then it became about animals.
Now it’s about democracy. Veganism is the best way to touch upon a myriad of political issues that are all linked together. If you had an interest in the healthcare bill, you should have an interest in truly healthy foods that have healing properties in them – the foods that prevent disease in the first place. If you have a vested interest in the economy, then you should be concerned with putting money into your local community, like the farmer’s market. You see where your money goes and you see the return. It’s a healthy and democratic way to use our money.
Veganism is linked to health, water use and waste. It’s linked to immigration by how people are brought across the border to work in factory farms and slaughterhouses. It’s linked to famine across the world and to the destruction of the environment. I see my veganism now as part of a democratic project, and being an active citizen. We have all experienced, especially in the last few years, that we cannot rely on our government to take care of us. Politics starts with our own actions and what we do.
You and your partner [artist Justin Bua] are raising a vegan child. Have you had any issues with that?
We have given her a really solid support system because of the way we live, the issues we discuss. In her kindergarten classroom this past Thanksgiving they asked each kid “how do you prepare the turkey for Thanksgiving?” There were twenty papers on the wall with little drawings of turkeys. One answer was ‘we buy it at CVS, it comes in a circle, we put it in a microwave for two seconds for two thousand degrees…’ It was hilarious and disturbing. Our little one’s paper said, “I don’t eat turkey.” She must have said it with no reservation at all. She has a very solid understanding of why we don’t eat meat or dairy and she’s committed to it. Simply having conversations at home, any time there is an opportunity – whether a commercial for meat comes on TV, or a show about animals on Discovery – we talk about our love for animals and ask her opinions on the issues so she thinks about it for herself and comes up with her own reasons and answers. Having a strong support system at home is very helpful.
What advice do you have for activists, or vegans in general?
Well, I believe that an activist of any kind should be questioning their food and where it comes from, what kind of system they are consenting to. And as far as vegans go, we are inherently animal rights activists and environmentalists. You don’t have to be marching in animal rights protests or visiting a farm sanctuary. You are putting your money where your mouth is. Your money is your ballot. The best thing we can do is to educate ourselves and have intelligent answers to the most frequently asked questions We can be prepared to help people see clearly the mythical stories they tell themselves about health, food, and animals. Whenever I talk to somebody about veganism, there is usually some sort of pushback. Whether it’s about protein, biology, nutrition, or veganism being hard, there are all these stories that people hold onto to justify what is essentially a national bad habit. It is vitally important to have responses to their questions and concerns.
Part of the discussion also has to be to remind people that veganism is more about adding new foods to our diet rather than taking things away. I forget that when people think vegan they think tofu, because I myself eat mostly raw foods and think that ninety percent of tofu is terrible for you. I am eating things now that I never ate before like kale, raw cacao, coconuts, maca and foods that I don’t know how I lived without. It is such a joy to have these foods in my life. When you have things in your life that you love and are making you healthy, veganism is not hard.
Most importantly, just speak up, especially if you are part of a spiritual-yet-meat-eating community. The yogis for example need to give up meat by now! Environmentalists as well. Their ideologies match the vegan ideology, and I think the choice not go all the way is willful ignorance. In the end, even “spiritual” people don’t want to feel like they are giving something up, and that’s just too fake for my tastes.
As to the future of veganism and animal rights, I see the fall of the factory farms – either from the outside in because of widespread education, or from the inside out from widespread disease. As things are now, the factory farm system is far too unsustainable to stay as it is. Following the civil rights movement, veganism is the next step for moral progress in our society. I believe it will follow the same trajectory as other social movements – through denial and anger, but finally acceptance. I believe we’ll get there someday.
To purchase a copy of That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals: http://www.wedonteatanimals.com/store.html
Gary Smith is co-founder of Evolotus, a PR agency working for a better world. Evolotus specializes in health and wellness, spirituality, animal protection, natural foods, documentary films, non-profits and socially beneficial companies. Gary and his wife adhere to a vegan lifestyle and live with their cat Chloe, in Sherman Oaks, CA.