The books we read as children can sometimes remain with us into adulthood, especially if a book had an impact on the way we view life. Ruby Roth is a vegan children’s book illustrator and writer, known for That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals.
Her newest creation, Vegan Is Love, showcases, in a visually compelling way, how children can view compassion as applicable to all forms of life, not just people. Vegan Mainstream spoke with Roth recently to get an idea about her creative process and what work goes into publishing a book for children.
Vegan Mainstream: Could you tell us a little about your process for illustrating and how you translate that into children’s books?
Ruby Roth: I was teaching art at an elementary school and the kids were always curious about why I wasn’t eating the string cheese and drinking the milk they were served at recess.
At first, I didn’t want to get in trouble. Then I thought, “I’m here to teach. Why not?” As I started telling them [about veganism], I was shocked to find they were really curious and interested, and they had a lot of questions.
Right away I looked for books that I could bring in and share with them. I couldn’t find one that wasn’t about a talking animal or talking vegetable, but these kids were just too cool for school. I knew they wouldn’t take me seriously! So, I decided to create the book myself. I had degrees in art and planned to be an artist my whole life, and that’s the way I found my first project.
As for the process, I have sketchbooks and sketchbooks of little thumbnails and ideas. I just work the thumbnails until I get something that I like and that becomes a bigger sketch drawing, and then that becomes the final drawing. The final drawing gets transferred to illustration board and then becomes a painting.
VM: What made you decide on these particular visual aesthetics for your books?
RR: The style of these two books is really inspired by the kids I was teaching. We would do all kinds of art projects, and I was always really in love with the way kids portray the essence of an animal. Like, they would draw an alligator as the letter “V” turned on its side, and that really is such a genius way of boiling down the alligator’s essential shape. I took that idea and used a lot of geometric shapes and angles with these animals.
VM: What medium do you work with?
RR: These [illustrations] are acrylic on illustration board.
VM: And then how do your paintings become a book?
RR: I had about 35 paintings for this new book, and those get sent to the scanner and then [the publisher] sends me the files. I laid out and designed the book. Most of the time, people will just give over their files and someone in-house at the publishing company will lay out and design the book, but being a graphic designer and artist, and having done books before, I decided to do it myself.
VM: Have you always worked on children’s books?
RR: No. I actually just finished [working with] my boyfriend (the artist Justin Bua)’s second book. I was co-graphic designer on the first one, and full graphic designer on the second one.
VM: In your second book, you touch on some of the big vegan issues. How do you tailor these messages about animal cruelty to kids?
RR: It takes a ton of research. I did massive research for each one of these tenets of veganism. It is difficult to boil down the most important, essential points. I balanced my own personal feelings with the mainstream ideas of veganism that everybody knows. I bounced my ideas off of friends and other activists to see if we all felt I was getting the whole picture.
I want, in both books, the message to be manageable for a kid. It goes from huge research into finding one or two sentences and making them understandable and relatable to a kid. Finding the angle a kid will understand and using language that is gentle but clear.
VM: Do you think your books have mass appeal, where they could be read in schools and not just by kids of vegan parents?
RR: I think this new book, Vegan Is Love, especially does. It’s lighter and brighter than the first book. More importantly, since my first book came out in 2009, I’ve really seen the vegan movement grow. More people are familiar with the word. It’s not so uncommon anymore and it’s become a selling point at the grocery store, at the bookstore, at restaurants, etc. I think as the movement grows and more adults find it, there will be more kids involved as well.
As the vegan movement grows as big as the green movement is, my book won’t be so scary for people to share with children, vegan or not. The point of the second book is that anybody and everybody can make a vegan choice.
VM: Have you gotten any push-back from schools that say they won’t let kids read it or that sort of thing?
RR: Schools are kind of a whole separate issue as far as curriculum, because they have their own textbooks and protocols. There was a significant amount of push-back in the media and [a lot of] parent comments on the first book. That was really interesting because in response to those, I got even stronger about my message. Any negative publicity that came in grew my campaigns because I responded to it and had answers from my experience in teaching kids, reading to kids, and as a stepmother. I have a strong point of view.
VM: How would you describe the difference between your two books?
RR: Vegan Is Love is just now getting out, so I’ve yet to see the extent of people’s reactions.
Where the first book is about the why, the second book is about the how. The first book really was necessary as the foundation of understanding the emotional lives of animals, on and off the factory farm, and the ideas around how our choices affect the environment, endangered species, the rainforest, and so on.
The second book is really about what we can do, now that we know. It’s about how far across the world we can send our love through the choices that we make every day.
VM: How do you suggest kids get involved with veganism and how do you help kids take action?
RR: I think from the moment a child wakes up, from the clothing they wear to the food they eat, there is a choice to do something that either helps or harms animals. When we give kids the information, in my opinion, they are totally capable of making wise choices and formulating moral values on their own.
If kids don’t know there are any choices, then they can’t make them. The first step is education. The second step is being involved. It’s the parents’ job to choose the activities, but it’s really important to always be asking your kids for their opinions, for their involvement. So if you’re grocery shopping, you talk to your kids about why you’re buying “that one” as opposed to another. Kids learn to read labels and look for logos.
Involve kids in the kitchen. It’s really hard to resist tasting something that you’ve had a hand in making. I always say that’s the best way to get kids to taste new things, to get them involved in the kitchen. The same goes for the garden, for the farmer’s market, there are opportunities any time you’re with your children — even if it’s driving down the road and passing a McDonald’s. Have a discussion and ask for their thoughts and opinions, so they can start formulating their own.
VM: Parenting issues seem to spur a lot of debates on blogs and elsewhere. How do you respond to people who express concerns about you having an “agenda” or teaching kids about veganism?
RR: Firstly, McDonald’s doesn’t think your child is too young to be marketed to. The pharmaceutical companies don’t think your kids are too young. Violent video game companies don’t think your children are too young, so if you don’t educate your children, somebody else is happy to do it for you.
Here in the west we have a concept of childhood, which sees children as innocent, and frail, and pure. So, people try to protect kids from the adult world by sugar-coating or avoiding truths entirely. My experience as a teacher and as a stepmom is that by engaging in that kind of hiding, we are hindering what our children are actually capable of psychologically, spiritually, physically.
VM: What are your goals in the next year?
RR: I think it’s just to expand on what I’ve built so far. I’ve been able to connect with a worldwide vegetarian and vegan community, which is amazing. I think it’s just going to keep growing. I’ve created a niche for myself that is a very connected niche around the world. I’ve found a voice within that community and I hope to grow it with books, blogging, writing and whatever else comes down the line.
Ruby’s new book, Vegan Is Love, is in stores now, so look out for it!