Upon first glance of Ruby Roth’s childrens’ book, That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals, one is immediately taken by the compelling illustrations and simple yet thoughtful messages as it guides us through the natural world of animals and contrasts it with the world of animals on farms today. We discovered this book on a LinkedIn group where it raised much interesting discussion about when and how children should be made aware of the realities of modern farming. Here is our interview with Roth about the book and beyond.
Did you have any important experience growing up or in adulthood that triggered in you a transformation in how you look at food? If so please explain.
Looking back, everything in my life pointed to me ending up being vegan—from having grandparents who were in the Holocaust to having a vegetarian mom, living on an organic tree farm, getting a liberal, progressive, eco-friendly education, and majoring in American Studies. But amazingly, it never actually occurred to me to go vegan until someone who didn’t “look like a vegan” caught my attention and shook up my world by pointing out that my eating habits didn’t match my morals and values. Then I saw the film “Earthlings.” The dissonance between the kind of person I believed myself to be and the kind of destruction I was participating in made me stop eating meat and dairy—cold turkey. I couldn’t be the same person after seeing that footage. And once you look behind the veil of our entire food industry, you can’t see food the same way.
How did you decide to focus your efforts on children with storytelling and art directed to children?
I was teaching art at an elementary school and the kids always wanted to know why I wasn’t eating the string cheese being served to them at recess. When I looked for a book to share with them on the subject, I couldn’t find one that wasn’t based on a talking animal or vegetable…and I knew I couldn’t reach this group of street-savvy, cool kids with those books. I wanted a smart, honest book that would catch their attention. With degrees in art and American studies, I decided to create it myself. I felt it would be a growing area of interest for many families in the forthcoming years.
How many children would you say you reach with your message each year?
Well in 2009, our first run of 8,000 books sold out in the first year and now “That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals” is being published in German, Italian, Korean, and Portuguese. Word is spreading fast! With more kids being raised with a foundational eco-friendliness and consciousness about food and animals, the world is going to change. Wait until this generation is running things! It’s exciting to watch the movement bloom even within the last couple years.
How many schools have you visited?
I’ve lost track! I’ve done readings, lectures, and have had great discussions at libraries, in classrooms, bookstores, restaurants, and at various expos and conferences.
Do you believe that children have an inherent sense of empathy for animals??
Yes they do—empathy, interest, and love. And every industry from children’s clothing to movies, fast food, and zoos and circuses knows it—and they capitalize on it. The trick is getting kids to use their inherent empathy, interest, and love to PROTECT animals instead of exploiting them. That’s where kids need guidance and encouragement of critical thinking, because with the intense marketing manipulation and social training they experience, it’s easy to believe you’re loving animals when you are actually doing the opposite, for example visiting Sea World. Teaching kids about how their choices affect the world—people, animals, and the environment—allows them to stay true to the compassion they’re born with.
And your new book will help parents and teachers do just that?
Yes, “Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action” will be out in May 2012. I’m so excited! It’s about how far into the world we can send our love through the choices we make every day—from food and clothing, to entertainment, organics, and more.
It seems like parents are as important an audience for you as children. Do you believe that in teaching their children, parents can recapture the empathy they lost in adulthood?
Yes, in fact a friend came up with a great slogan for my books: “So easy even adults can understand!” It’s important for me to target adults, too, because children get on board to help animals easily, but if their parents are unsupportive, they’re often stuck until they’re older. This will change the more familiar the word “vegan” becomes. I hear that people leave my books in their dentist’s waiting room, or at their own natural health clinics, and that they see other adults picking it up to see what’s inside. And instead of a lengthy chapter book, they get the message in a few pages.
How did you arrive at the title of your book That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals? Did you have any other title options you were considering?
When I came up with that title, I was STUCK on it! There was some pushback about it being too aggressive and possibly controversial, but this was SO my voice! I felt that it would be a proud exclamation that families like ours would have fun saying at home, at the store, when we see McDonald’s commercials on TV, when we see incredible images of nature. I knew that veg families would understand the passion behind it—and that it would catch everyone else’s attention!
Are there any specific inspirations behind either your illustration work or your writing?
Yes, my students, primarily! When I taught art, I noticed the simplified geometric shapes that children would use to represent animals. I loved the way they essentialized animal shapes, very Picasso-esque cubism. You can see their influence on my characters. I was channeling their imaginations with my round chickens, cows with big square noses, cats with exaggerated whiskers. And while I painted, I also kept my all-time favorite children’s book “Ferdinand the Bull” in reach the whole time for inspiration. It still amazes me what an all-around perfect book that is.
What other ways do you or have you considered spreading the messages from your books?
I speak at conferences, expos, in schools, and to organizations. My favorite is speaking to crowds who are not “part of the choir.” I’ve thought of children’s animation and TV, but I’m against using imagery of talking animals. The intelligence and the emotional lives of animals are so rich, I think anthropomorphizing in a cartoon takes away from learning.
What are the biggest challenges for you to overcome in this process?
Taking in information about the profound destruction humans have caused on this planet. It weighs heavy. But I study it so that I can explain and teach. And as long as I stay active—from signing petitions to writing books—I never stay sad for too long. I always say, we never have to fear things we have the power to change.