Author and Artist Ruby Roth’s That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals: A Book About Vegans, Vegetarians and All Living Things is one of the more challenging books I’ve read with my daughter. Aimed squarely at young kids (recommended ages of 4-10), Roth’s book tackles some very deep and potentially disturbing subject matter, using the inhumane treatment of food animals such as cows, chickens and pigs as a compelling reason for adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. Roth goes even further, also tying factory farming practices to environmental issues. While it may not make a vegetarian out of everyone who reads it, That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals succeeds in raising awareness about where our food comes from and how our food choices affect other creatures and the environment.
I read through the book first myself, wanting to make certain that it wasn’t too extreme. While I believe it’s important for kids to have access to balanced facts and to understand where things come from, I’m not ready to give my seven and nine year olds a copy of Fast Food Nation, or even the children’s version of that book: Chew On This. Maybe in a few more years, but not yet. I needn’t have worried, though. Roth touches on the conditions animals raised on factory farms endure, although the painted illustrations showing crowded cages and penned ducks sporting open sores say more than the words, but she doesn’t get overly graphic. Nor does she focus on the slaughterhouse aspect of our food cycle. Instead, the author tries to establish an empathetic relationship between the reader and the animals, focusing on the bonds between mother and young of our various food animals, as well as opening up the book with an overview of how well we treat our pets. The emotional behaviors some of the animals are credited with (turkeys “mourn,” pigs are “sensitive” and “love is part of their nature,” while cows can be “proud”) may raise hackles for some, but that’s about as controversial as it gets. While the bulk of the book’s 52 pages deal with the plight of animals raised for food, there is a nice tie-in between factory farms and environmental issues like water pollution, as well as information on the rainforest and endangered animals. I thought That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals nicely connected the dots between how humans treat animals and the impact our species has on the planet as a whole, with the basic premise being that a more enlightened attitude toward our food sources (of course, ideally that would mean becoming vegetarian) translates into a healthier planet.
My daughter Natasha, who has been a vegetarian for roughly five years now, read the book with me on the second pass and she enjoyed it. She chose to become vegetarian solely because of her feelings toward animals, so this book was pretty much preaching to the converted, but I think she appreciated the acknowledgment that others agree with her. She found the caged animal illustrations a little upsetting, but it wasn’t anything that would make her walk away from it. The mention of environmental impact really resonated with her as well, and I think the inclusion of this part of the story was a good idea in terms of helping her perception of how her own actions can have a ripple effect. The illustrations are very nicely done in general, by the way, with Roth’s artistic skills put to good use.
Is it a balanced book? It’s firmly pro-vegan/vegetarian and it’s especially critical of factory-style farming. But it’s a reasonable book that raises the moral issues of eating meat in a way that children can understand and relate to without shocking them. Presumably if you’re considering introducing a book of this nature to your kids, you have at least some tolerance for the concept, so there shouldn’t be anything you’d consider to be too controversial. It’s received endorsements from the likes of Jane Goodall, Ed Begley and a long list of authors and activists. Additional information is available on the web site.