june 2012

ruby roth
Ruby Roth: ‘You don’t have to be vegan to make vegan choices.’ (Photo: Jamie Oliver)

Grim Fairy Tale: Once Upon A Time, Ruby Roth Wrote A Children's Book That Triggered A Big, Bad Controversy 

logoBy Duncan Strauss
Host, ‘Talking Animals,’ at NPR affiliate station WMNF-FM, Tampa, Florida; online at www.talkinganimals.net

Children's books typically serve a few purposes: To ease the transition from bedtime to sleep time...to spur a child's imagination... to impart some fundamental lessons about friendship, family, the golden rule and other rules of good behavior...for parents to re-live their childhood by reading their kid Goodnight Moon, Where The Wild Things Are, and several selections from the Dr. Seuss canon. 
There's approximately a zillion children's books published at this point, and as much as that zillion represents a rainbow of storytelling and artistic styles, this is a literary genre that tends to be gentle and nice, warm and fuzzy, fun and funny. 
So when a new children's book touches off an international controversy--leaders of a few industries were steamed, some major media entities engaged in finger-wagging, bloggers were banging out charged up posts for and against--well, this constitutes more than a ripple in the kid-lit world. That's plain ol' big news in any world.

‘This is a kids’ book of simple ideas. But at its core it’s really about democracy, supply and demand and engaging ourselves in the public realm.’: Ruby Roth talks Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action

The book in question is Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action, a colorfully illustrated collection of bite-size blurbs about such topics as circuses, eating animals, pollution, animal testing--and on Talking Animals May 16, we spoke with author-illustrator Ruby Roth about her book and the controversy it spawned.

thatsCentral to that conversation was noting that a pretty puzzling aspect of the controversy is that Vegan Is Love is not Roth's first children's book about veganism. She previously wrote That's Why We Don't Eat Animals, which elicited some commentary but nothing remotely approximately resembling the seismic clamor that's erupted around Vegan Is Love.
She described what prompted her to write the first book. "I was teaching art at an elementary school," she recalled, "and the kids were always really curious about why I wasn't eating the string cheese and the milk they were always being served at recess.

"At first, I was a little bit scared of talking about my veganism, but I did it anyway, and I was shocked to hear just how interested they were in healthy eating and food, what was going on with animals and what they could do-what anybody could do--at any given moment to make choices to protect animals.
"So I went to look for a book that I could bring in, to talk more about it. But everything I found was about a talking animal or a talking vegetable, and these kids were 'too cool for school, and I didn't think that would catch their attention. So with my background in art and American Studies, I decided to create the book myself."

Ruby Roth discusses the genesis of her first book, Why We Don’t Eat Animals and the ideas that inspired her to write it.

Reminding Roth that we see nothing wrong whatsoever with "talking animals," I asked her why she had felt a bit uneasy about discussing her veganism. "I think we know," she replied,  "just from seeing the controversy around my second book coming out, that there's a fear and an unfamiliarity with a plant-based diet. Even though throughout history and the world, nations of people have survived and thrived on a plant-based diet. 
"There's a lot of questions that come up and I think what people don't realize is what we're talking about when we're talking about veganism is not the standard American diet, minus meat and dairy, but an entirely new ‘pyramid’ that is, by far, more nutrient-dense because nutrients are more bio-available to us, and the nutrients are free from harmful side effects.

A review of Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action. Posted at YouTube by ChildrenBookMix

"So I could understand the questions and the fear that most parents would have if a child came home and said they didn't want to eat meat or dairy anymore... But I was in a position of teaching, and I thought 'if kids have questions, they should have answers.' And if any parents had questions, there were answers to those questions, as well."
Enlisting Roth's help in trying to solve the mystery of why the first book caused minor consternation while the second one sparked a major controversy, I asked her to address the chief way the approach differed to writing each.
"The first book is really about the Why's of a plant-based diet," she said. "It's about the emotional lives of animals, factory farming, the environment, endangered species. The second book is really about the How-how in our everyday life can we make choices to improve the lives of animals, our own health, and the environment all around the world."
OK, got ya, Ruby. But I don't think I would have to be playing devil's advocate--or even mildly cynical, really--to wonder if there were sections Roth wrote or co-wrote in the new book with the express purpose of making a certain kind of point, of emphasizing a certain philosophical element?

vegan"Well," she replied,  "I wanted to include all the major tenets of veganism, and that spans from pollution to the environment, to health, to animals. There’s a wide range of motives for people in the vegan community. So there was a lot of research, from zoology to politics to economics. At the core of this book, it's really about democracy, supply and demand, and engaging ourselves in the public realm. So I drew on all kinds of sources to write this book."
There's little question that Vegan Is Love draws on a wide array of resources and research--especially for a children's book. Still, by way of exploring the controversy from both sides, I felt it important to ask her about a passage that has triggered perhaps the most vociferous reaction: On a page under the heading "Do No Harm," there's a section that reads

              But whether they live in the sunshine or in a dark shed, all
animals raised for meat and dairy are captured and killed in the end. Their deaths are violent and sad.

Ruby responds: "About that spread, in particular, let me say a couple of things. One, between my first book and second book, I've seen a growth in the vegan population and also a growth in people who think that switching over to, quote unquote, ‘humanely-raised’ or organic or grass-fed animals makes a huge difference. And, really, that may make a difference in our consciences, but it doesn't make a difference to the animals.
"And most of these animals are slaughtered in USDA slaughterhouses, so they all end up in the same place. There's nothing untrue about what I say on the page. That I say it's sad and violent, this controversy has really proven that people know, on some level, that what we do to animals is scary and bad. Otherwise there wouldn't be this controversy--if it's too scary to talk about, it's too scary to eat."

ruby roth
‘…if the American public knew the level of disease and abuse in meat and dairy industries, or any commerce involving animals, then the outrage would really be directed at the industries, not at children's books about choices and alternatives, and the status quo.’

Of course, there's no controversy without at least two conflicting viewpoints, and part of what has engendered the support and acclaim for Vegan Is Love--not just rave book reviews but plaudits from the likes of Jane Goodall and Ric O'Barry (the dolphin wiz at the center of the Oscar-winning doc The Cove)--is that Ruby Roth is not a shrill hard-liner; for her, it's not just the vegan way, or the highway.
"You don't have to be vegan to make vegan choices," she suggests. "These are choices that anybody and everybody can make, at any given moment of life. And I think that, given the environmental and health crises we find ourselves in America, it really goes to show that it's going to be up to the people to make the change. We don't have to wait to grow older or for laws to change or for Presidents to be elected--as I say in my book, we can start right now."
For many authors, the sort of controversy surrounding Vegan Is Love would be viewed as a godsend-it's yielded a platform to discuss these issues widely, including in national media outlets, which often translates to additional book sales. In this instance, Roth relishes the platform, but disabuses us of the notion that it translates to the book doing a brisk business.

"I've felt an immense gratitude, kind of overwhelmingly emotional after being able to speak on behalf of animals on a national level," Roth, who's 29, says. "It was very moving to me. Book sales--I could probably make more money if I were a 12-year-old babysitter. But the fact that we can have this conversation on a national level--when I was a child, I don't think I knew of the existence of the word 'vegan.' So, a relatively short time later, people know the word enough to argue about it"--here, she laughs heartily--"so we're on the right path."

That national media platform provided Roth an illuminating--and mixed--experience. Just in TV-Ville alone, for example, she was featured on CNN in a two-segment, evenhanded profile, whereas a segment on The Today Show projected a surprisingly judgmental, finger-wagging tone, going so far as to employ the onscreen phrase "extreme parenting."
"Originally, with The Today Show, they were going to have me in studio and that kind of changed at the last minute," she explains. "And I wasn't really surprised about that, because look at who their sponsors and advertisers are. And I don't really know how much they can say. I think it's really interesting that the media feels that it always has to represent the other side of my argument, when, really, veganism is the other side.

"I mean, if the American public knew the level of disease and abuse in meat and dairy industries, or any commerce involving animals, then the outrage would really be directed at the industries, not at children's books about choices and alternatives, and the status quo. It's been interesting. They have to make a story out of it." 

Dr. Mary Jones Verbovski, pediatric dietitian at Seattle Children's Hospital, offers a sensible perspective on Ruby Roth's new book, Vegan Is Love, and the advantages and pitfalls of a vegan diet.

Manufactured or not, sometimes a story like Roth's can dovetail with another prominent story. The Talking Animals interview with her came mere days after the death of Maurice Sendak. Partly because Sendak was a towering figure in her field, I asked Roth about him.
"One of the interesting things that has happened in the last week," she answers, "is that my name has been mentioned in articles about Maurice Sendak--but they've been critical mentions, saying "We love Where The Wild Things Are because it's simple and it wasn't preachy, unlike books like Vegan Is Love.
"But I think people don't really know about the life and work of Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are is genius and amazing, but it's also quite dark. A lot of his work was dark and not politically correct. And as he said himself many times, he refuses to lie to children and sugarcoat everything. So I believe he would appreciate a book like Vegan Is Love."
That's the other reason I brought him up: Fundamentally, Maurice Sendak and Ruby Roth are philosophically aligned, and it's not hard to imagine him cackling admiringly at the brouhaha her latest book has unleashed-he appeared to have a keen appreciation for any kind of wild rumpus.

Ruby Roth’s Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action is available at www.amazon.com

Ruby Roth’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals is available at www.amazon.com

Here's the link to the Talking Animals show featuring Ruby Roth: http://www.talkinganimals.net/archives_synopses_15.html#051612

Ruby Roth on CNN
Part 1 http://www.cnn.com/video/?/video/living/2012/04/30/exp-kaye-kids-veganism.cnn#/video/living/2012/04/30/exp-kaye-kids-veganism.cnn

Part 2

Ruby Roth on Today

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