There’s nothing in my books that a child wouldn’t see walking through the grocery store, in the deli section or on the myriad of TV shows about hunting, fishing or even cooking. I think by avoiding or sugarcoating the truth, we’re actually hindering what our children are capable of. The path to a greener future and a more sustainable planet lies in engaging our kids. I don’t see any reason why our children’s health and education should be placed on a layaway plan. ~ Ruby Roth
Award-winning author, renowned illustrator and fine artist Ruby Roth is creating powerful waves, and her own brand of badass.
Her internationally distributed series of children’s books have now been translated into over 10 languages, with the newest title, Bad Day, winning the 2019 Nautilus Book Award – better books for a better world.
I sat down with Ruby to discuss what inspires her to use her talents and abilities to promote veganism and to find out what keeps her motivated.
What was your relationship with animals as a child?
Like most children, I was an animal-lover. I grew up in a horse-friendly neighborhood, we had a hamster, a bunny, eventually a dog. But at a single-digit young age I was caring for two cockatiels, and when I was about 6 years old, my dad brought home a Goffin’s cockatoo. We were deeply bonded into my adult life.
When and why did you make the transition to veganism?
I was always into “health” food, my mom was a vegetarian my whole life, I was also a student of politics and involved in a lot of anti-racism, social justice activism; I even lived with vegan roommates in college 2000-2004. Despite all of this, it had never occurred to me to go vegan myself. But when I was 20, I met someone who would eventually become my partner for a long time. He was listening to me talk about my social justice activity and interrupted—he said, “Your eating habits don’t match your morals and your values.” He introduced me to a lot of research, Earthlings, and the early vegan community forming in Los Angeles in 2003. I decided to try veganism for a summer, and I felt so great I never turned back.
What came first, your veganism or your decision to be an artist?
I had a penchant for drawing and art as soon as I could hold a pencil.
How did one affect the other, if at all?
Being a rather internal person with a big inner world made me pretty aware of bodily sensations and how food made me feel. I also wore a back brace for scoliosis for 20-plus hours a day for 13 years starting at age 6 that further solidified my physical sensitivity. Being attuned to myself in this way definitely primed me for veganism—to be curious about how to best take care of my “temple” and the energy of the foods I ingest.
I think the concept of energy escapes many people, even those who are vegan.
For clarification and educational purposes can you please elaborate on your ‘energy of the foods I ingest’ comment? Can you explain what you mean by this?
Since I was a child, I have always been very attuned to what was going on inside of me. Physical sensations were exaggerated because I was contained in an actual shell.
Feeling full was uncomfortable. Feeling hyper from eating sugar was uncomfortable. I told my mom when I was six or seven years old that I didn’t want anything sugary. Obviously I didn’t know anything about nutrition; but maybe at the time I was responding to something I was feeling instinctually. I didn’t like how my body felt contained inside of this hard plastic shell when sugar was present in my system.
When I was about 20, I had an interaction with a friend who said, “your eating habits don’t match your morals and your values.” At that time my introduction into veganism also included Earthlings and the concept that we are potentially taking in, ‘energetically’, the fear and suffering of these factory farmed animals who have adrenaline pumping through their bodies at the time of their death. So having dealt with my back brace and very very early onset panic attacks in my childhood, that information hit me hard; like something to pay attention to and that ridding myself of meat, whether it was psychosomatic or not, helped me physically feel more at peace.
Just eliminating even the potential for carrying extra adrenaline in my body felt like a good move.
Watch the debut of Ruby Roth's video 'Bound-Bones + Bodies'
Let’s talk about your creative talents. Such a competitive and tough industry to break into. What was behind your decision to become an artist?
I don’t think it was a decision! I couldn’t even help it; I was always on track to a professional life in art. I was always studying other artists and collecting comic books, graphic novels, always taking extracurricular classes, building skills, learning traditional and digital skills. I got a Degree in Art and American Studies, pushed my way into an internship with one of my favorite artists, and started teaching art at an afterschool program when I graduated college. It was my students who inspired my first book, That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals.
This speaks of the philosophy “if you love what you do, it’s not work. What is your advice to animal rights movement members who would like to help animals but have not figured out how they can utilize their existing abilities?
I think the best place to start is wherever you already are. I think people often feel like they have to gain new skills in order to contribute, or their current occupation or place in the community isn’t good enough. I’ve always felt like for things to shift on a social, cultural and planetary level we need everybody exactly where they are…to influence the community and the larger environment around them.
Like you, all great artists have an identifiable style. How did you develop that and where does it come from?
My exaggerated, distorted style was somewhat how I drew naturally, informed by my scoliosis and the imbalances in my own body. But it was also inspired by my elementary school students who drew animals in such an essentialized way with basic geometric shapes. They definitely influenced my style as I developed the visual aesthetic of my first book.
After launching your book Vegan is Love in 2012 you appeared on multiple News channels. Some of the interviews conducted were quite controversial and combative. Going up against seasoned news anchors, child psychologists, and notable licensed nutritionists, you maintained composure and your answers were always on point.
How do you prepare for these spirited debates?
Thank you! When I was first becoming vegan and pouring over research to understand the motives behind the movement, it was really important to me to have answers to the frequently asked questions, for myself, and for others who asked. I knew going into the interviews that they would be adversarial in nature, but by then I had been vegan and researching for almost 10 years—I had plenty of practice being the outsider.
Where do you get your book ideas from?
When I was teaching art at an elementary afterschool program, the kids started noticing I wasn’t eating the string cheese and milk they were served at recess. I went searching for a book to share and discuss with them, but I found almost nothing—maybe a single title that was about a talking tomato. My kids were very smart. I didn’t baby them in language or in discussion or in the assignments I gave, so I didn’t want to read them a “baby” book. It hit me then that my two loves—activism and art—could come together in practical and useful ways to fill a void I saw.
Mother’s Day is a celebration honoring the mother, motherhood, maternal bonds, and the influence of mothers in society. At the same time, the dairy industry is notorious for blatantly denouncing the non-human animal bond between mother and child.
As a mother and woman yourself, can you talk about this and how you believe your work is making a positive impact in this arena?
Working in the health/vegan/environmental space since 2003, I can say with authority that women are demographically the absolute backbone of these movements toward physical and planetary health and healing. It looks to me that it’s the feminine energy—in ourselves, and in nature— that is damaged and suppressed by the environmental and agricultural mistakes humans have made. But this energy is also what carries us forward with endless love toward creating a sustainable, regenerative, healthy world. We know how well the feminine is being honored by the way a culture cares for its own ecology. If we measure that care by the practices inherent in factory farming, we are far from anything honorable. Within the vegan community, the feminine is more highly regarded.
Can you explain why you believe it is important to be honest with our children about animal agriculture, even if it means sometimes introducing them to topics that may be considered taboo?
To reach social and cultural practices that are properly calibrated to the current pollution/climate/health emergencies we face, we have to include children in the conversations. We can’t put our children’s education on layaway plans and hope they change their habits later in life. We have all the information, technology, and resources we need to change the trajectory our planet is on. We don’t have to wait for lawmakers in order to change our habits and influence the market—the driving force for either change or maintenance of the status quo. We can begin right now. Those are some of the first words in my second book, Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action.
What do you believe is behind the adult outrage in response to your books?
We have deep-rooted habits around eating animals—from our cultural traditions, to time, to our gender identities. The suggestion of change strikes at the foundations of our lives that people thought were unquestionable. It can be very destabilizing. But in general, I think the kneejerk outrage comes from imagining veganism as the Standard American Diet (SAD) minus meat and dairy, which leaves almost nothing upon nothing. When people transition responsibly to veganism, they add nutrients into their diets and fill in deficiency gaps common in the SAD diet. And responsible parents account for macro and micronutrients in their children’s diets, period. We are all learning, and the flow of research is always evolving and growing. Part of upholding the validity of veganism is staying attuned to our physical and biological needs so we can be good examples when we face outrage.
Do you have plans for a full-length film featuring your adorable characters or any other new projects on the horizon?
At the moment, I am still so happy with the books remaining books—kids have so much screen exposure already, I like to encourage reading. There may be more books in the future! Meanwhile, I am excited about our “My FARM Friends” coloring book and providing more analog activity! And I’m currently also focusing on my personal artwork—feminine, figurative drawings and paintings. My interest in the body and feminine energy continues.
Beyond your children’s series, is your fine art. Turning anguish into beauty, your forms and physical representations of the human body seem to prevail distortion. How did you develop this visceral sense of appreciation?
I have observed the body from the inside out since age 4, when I first saw the X-ray diagnosis of my S-shaped spinal curvature. For the following 15 years, I underwent aggressive and painful treatment for Scoliosis. Art became an outlet as I cultivated an inner world of senses, discipline, and coping mechanisms that would help me come to grips with my squared ribs, dented hips, and permanent welts—scars from electro-muscle stimulation and 20+ hours a day for 13 years wearing a full-torso plastic brace.
Throughout adolescence, my sketchbooks were filled with superheroines, tank girls, girls with guns—women in their power. In the following years, my sense of power became more subtle as I developed my aesthetic style with a distortion of anatomy instead.
Now, usually drawing from a live figure— most often bare and unaided by props or costumes—my command of academic anatomy meets pop surrealism as I exaggerate what I find beautiful and strong—the contrast of sharp and soft forms another reflection of the dualities that my subjects and I embody. As I honor each body for what it is, it becomes a “perfect” body, a vessel of powerful, feminine processing. And latent in my own distortions of flesh, sharp torsos and pinched, voluminous masses, are victories—not only those I gather from my subjects, but my own.
Thank you for sharing your compelling story. We look forward to what’s to come.