On kind, environmentalist, and vegan books for kids.

On kind, environmentalist, and vegan books for kids.

Our children love books.  We visit the public library every Friday and typically exit with one or two full tote bags (the only exception being days when our kids are so upset at the thought of leaving the library that they start yelling, at which point we might fail to check out any of the books we’d set aside).

At home, our children spend an hour or two each day reading.  Our preschooler actually knows how; our two-year-old flips through the pages of his favorites and recites aloud as much of the text as he remembers.  With his current favorites, like The Itchy Book, Potato Pants, or I Will Take a Nap, his versions are quite close to the printed edition.

Before our four year old learned to read, I never would have expected how sad her growth would make me feel.  She still curls up in my arm to hear bedtime stories, and she likes to read comic strips together for the chance to have jokes explained to her, but she’s been devouring The Magic Treehouse series and early chapter books by Beverly Cleary on her own.

Our family is fairly liberal.  We devote a lot of our free time to advocacy for environmental causes, veganism, justice, gender equality … and, when I read books to our children, I often change the words. 

In Owl at Home, our readings have Owl telling winter, “Do not come back,” as the text reads, but we also add “until you have changed your ways.”  Because, the kids agree, everyone should have a chance to grow; we all make mistakes and could use second chances.

In The Snowy Day, Peter tries to join “the big kids” in their snowball fight before realizing that he isn’t quite old enough yet.

And in many books, we change the foods that characters are eating.  Our kids love animals, and it’s easier for them to enjoy a story if the characters have tofu or vegetables on their plates instead of an animal.

But sometimes it’s nice to have a beautiful book that needs no substitutions.  I trawled through a few lists of vegan kids’ books, but many of these, like Dave Loves Chickens, are blatantly ideological texts that don’t quite work as stories.  And so, in case you were looking for recommendations, here are a few of our family’s favorites.

The Great Pig Escape by Eileen Christelow tells the story of a group of pigs who escape from a truck when a pair of farmers are taking them to market.  When the piglets first arrive, one of the farmers remarks that they’re cute, but the other reminds her, “Eight months from now they’ll be pork chops, so don’t go falling in love with them!”

But the pigs are lovable, and quite clever too.  They sabotage the farmers’ truck in a way that will abet their escape, then later steal clothes to disguise themselves as regular civilians.  (Lest you worry that the book encourages thievery, you should know that the pigs later mail a package full of clothing, returning everything they took.  Everyone is overjoyed to receive their belongings back – except the farmers, who receive a cheerful postcard instead of their lost pigs.)

We also purchased a copy to give to our local farmed animal sanctuary … after using watercolors and packing tape to modify the art so that the pigs were escaping to that sanctuary instead of to Florida.

The Dog House by Jan Thomas features a quartet of animal friends who accidentally toss their ball into a spooky doghouse.  One by one the animals go inside, attempting to retrieve the ball, but they don’t come out again.  Eventually only the mouse is left and he whimpers, “Won’t you come back out, duck?”  But a big, scary-looking dog stomps outside to say, “No, because I’m having duck for dinner!”

The mouse is horrified – someone is eating his friend!

Except that the dog is having duck stay as a guest – the animals all share a tasty vegan meal with parsnips and other vegetables.

Our family lives with a big, scary-looking pit bull, as well as a rather wolf-like hound dog … both of whom are vegan.

Me, Jane by Patrick McDonnell tells the story of Jane Goodall learning how to quietly observe nature, the skill that enabled her scientific discoveries.  There are several charming children’s books about Jane Goodall (we also like The Watcher by Jeanette Winter, which describes her research in more detail), but we love McDonnell’s art. 

When our preschooler first learned to read, she favored comic strips.  She had recently turned four and loved Calvin and Hobbes.  Heck, I love Calvin and Hobbes too.  But I’m a wee bit older than four.  I’d like to think that I have a good grasp on the concepts like irony and antiheroes.  Our child did not.  She asked, “Mama, what’s a poopy head?” because Hobbes had slung that insult at Calvin.  Well, that’s not ideal, but, fine.  Kids are eventually going to learn salty language.

Worse, our kid’s behavior tanked.  She started raging, battling her sibling, kicking dust at the playground … when we pulled her aside to talk about that last activity, she explained, “Calvin says it’s the best part of playing baseball!”

Well, yes, there is a comic strip where Calvin says that.  I had to explain that grown-ups think it’s funny because Calvin is doing the wrong thing.  Our kid nodded, but the expression on her face made me think that she was dubious.

So I wound up hiding all our Calvin and Hobbes.  Soon after, I hid all our Peanuts, which also feature kids acting less kindly than we would like.

But McDonnell’s Mutts?  Mutts can stay.  The characters are mostly gentle and kind, and we feel confident that McDonnell shares our passion for treating both our neighbors and our planet with respect.

So Me, Jane is a book about a prominent vegan activist that is written and drawn by a prominent vegan cartoonist.  But it’s not sanctimonious in the least – it’s values are like deep currents, coursing beneath the text.  I would feel comfortable sharing that book with any child, even if I knew nothing about the parents’ political beliefs, because the only explicit statements stress the value of patience and hard work.

Gus’s Garage by Leo Timmers features a asiduous mechanic who lets nothing go to waste.  The book begins with a large mound of what appears to be useless junk next to Gus’s small shop, but as various animals arrive and describe their travails, Gus is able to engineer solutions to their problems with the materials he has on hand.

Again, there is no explanation given in the text for why Gus lives the way he does.  And I like that – because the message is so subtle, a wide range of people could enjoy this book.  Gus is both resourceful and ingenious, in a way that might evoke the survival skills that many Americans of my grandmother’s generation developed during the Great Depression, and which exemplifies the “reduce, re-use, recycle” mantra taught to elementary schoolchildren of my own generation.

Plus, the art is excellent and the sing-song rhymes are a pleasure to read aloud.

Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke beautifully conveys why a family needs rules: a fair set of rules can allow a group of very different individuals to live together peacefully.  Interested in talking to a two- or three-year-old about the refugee crisis?  There is a troll who arrives at Julia’s door after fleeing political turmoil at home (the city has torn down his bridge).  Trying to introduce your children to the concept of chores?  Julia eventually crafts a “chore chart,” giving everyone a manageable task that relies upon the guests’ unique talents.

(Perhaps I should mention, since I’m including Julia’s House for Lost Creatures in a list of vegan children’s books, that one picture depicts the imp-like folletti roasting something that looks very much like a chicken in the oven.  Since our kids have never seen this food, I’m not sure they ever realized.  And, besides, we’ve talked to them about veganism as a way of being kind – and this book is exceptionally kind.)

For slightly older children, you could try the early reader chapter book Ellie and the Good Luck Pig by Callie Barkley.  This is part of The Critter Club series, about a group of friends (when we read this aloud, we always change “the girls” into “the friends” or “the kids” … our preschooler will actually make substitutions like this on her own when she reads aloud to her sibling) who form something like an animal shelter in a neighbor’s barn. 

I had originally assumed that the kids in The Critter Club, who bonded over their love of animals, would all be vegetarian, but no such luck.  And perhaps it’s worth mentioning that I personally find the entire series to be like the literary equivalent of cotton candy.  There are some kids’ books, like Nate the Great, that I enjoy as much or more than my kids do … but not these.  Still, I’m not the target audience.  Our preschooler loves these.  The characters typically undergo some form of mild conflict that is just complicated enough for her to understand.  And a perfectly happy resolution will come after a few dozen pages.

In Ellie and the Good Luck Pig, the piglet is adopted by someone who runs a sanctuary for famed animals. 

Our family doesn’t manage to volunteer at our local farmed animal sanctuary as often as we did before having kids, but we’ve still gone several times in the last few years for me to pitch in some work.  Our kids like visiting – they especially like getting to see the pigs – but the drive is hard.

I’ve heard it gets easier, though.  Eventually they’ll grow up.  They’ll be able to sit quietly – reading, no doubt – in the car for a few hours at a time.

And I’ll feel sad.  Their intellectual journeys will leave me behind.

But I hope that we will have set them off in the right direction.

On playing outdoors, and allergies.

IMG_3797K has been on a big kick reading books about sending students outside.  Obviously, I approve.  Being outdoors seems to make most humans happier, and people who spend time outside seem more likely to care about preserving our environment.  Plus, K even has scholastic reasons to ask students to sit contemplatively outside — it’s reasonable for students in a college-level biology course to practice fieldwork.

I try to get N outside a lot, too, but with her it’s probably not reasonable to use “learning to do fieldwork” as an excuse.  She’s a bit young to practice the extreme patience needed for successful fieldwork, so I thought it might be worthwhile summarizing a few of the recent studies on exposure to the world, allergies, and autoimmune disorders.

I should declare my conflict of interest upfront, though.  I’m extremely biased because I want you, dear reader, and your friends, and your family, to spend more time outside.  Unless you’re, I don’t know, living in a tent, roasting carrots & beats & whatnot over a firepit every evening… then you’re probably outside plenty.  It’s the rest of us, those who lead more normative modern lives, sleeping in air-conditioned homes, zipping about town inside our cars, hoofing it down concrete sidewalks, spending long hours pecking at our computers, who could use a bit more outdoor time.  I’ll try my best to keep this short so that you can rush outside and play, but if you feel antsy & want to go out now, go ahead!  I won’t begrudge your priorities!

The basic idea behind all of this was proposed by David Strachan in the article “Hay Fever, Hygiene, and Household Size.”  He observed that younger siblings were less likely to get asthma and proposed that the messy, disease-prone lifestyle of multi-child families was protecting those younger children.  As in, getting sick more often as a child, and having an absentminded older sister who tracks mud through the house, might lead to better health as an adult.

IMG_4568Which is a lovely theory.  At birth, our immune systems are relatively ignorant.  They instinctively know that they should destroy things — we are the product of untold millennia of selection for those who can survive routine infections — but they don’t know what they should destroy.  Exposure to pathogens trains our immune systems to recognize & attack those pathogens.  Repeated exposure to innocuous substances trains us to ignore those ever-present harmless components of our environment.

The modern world is very clean, though.  We wash our hands.  We eat less dirt.  We’re less likely to even walk barefoot through the dirt.  Most people in the United States don’t pull their drinking water from a river that another tribe upstream defecates into.  And that’s good.  We get sick less.  Children are more likely to survive to adulthood.  But it also means that many people’s immune systems encounter fewer pathogens than they “expect.”

If you’re in the market for a really evil social psychology experiment, I’ve got one for you: find a small child & every day explain to that child that he should expect to get into at least one fight per week at school.  Tell him, “There are so many bullies out there!  You’ll have to be ready for them!  Don’t let them catch you off guard.  One fight a week!  Maybe two!  It’s a jungle and they prey on the weak!”

Once that kid starts kindergarten, even if it’s in a total fluff district where his classmates are all sunshine and rainbows, he’s probably going to get into fights.  Because he’ll assume those fights are supposed to happen, so he’ll blow tiny slights way out of proportion… you used the blue crayon too long!  Pow!

IMG_4696The hygiene hypothesis purports that our immune systems are the same.  They expect fights, and so if we put them into too-clean environs, they become the bullies they’ve been warned about (bonus points if you’re thinking about the shipwrecked sailer from The Watchmen now).  Immune systems can rage against innocuous compounds — those are allergies.  Or, worse, they get so incredibly bored, they’re expecting fights and everyone is so incredibly nice, that they begin to attack their own hosts.  As in, our own bodies.

Fighting off foreign infections helps the immune system learn to distinguish self from other, but if there are too few outsiders, the immune system just starts wailing on a mirror.  Wondering why the kid on the other side can’t ever be knocked down.

Autoimmune disorders are the pits.

And for years it seemed like there was nothing to do, once you contracted an allergy, except avoid the thing that triggers your itching and snurfling.  Or, worse, triggers your anaphylactic shock, dizziness, maybe death from loss of breathing.

But there might be hope!

Recently, researchers have been testing whether you can retrain an immune system to ignore innocuous compounds.  For instance, peanuts: by eating a small amount of peanuts every day you might be able to train your immune system to just leave them be instead of going berserk trying to pick a fight.  Because it’s the immune system’s fit of rage that kills people, not the peanuts themselves.  If peanuts are always around, that familiarity might breed lassitude.

(NOTE: there are a lot of references for this, and theoretically the idea is sound.  But let’s say you or someone you know has a peanut allergy — please DO NOT try to cure yourself this way without contacting a medical professional & undertaking the project in a hospital setting.  If you want to look up more papers on this, go to PubMed and search for “oral immunotherapy,” but please note that very low doses of the allergens are used, and even with those very low doses some people can go into shock.)

Another strategy that seems to be working well is to introduce punching bags into classrooms… that way the battle-ready children have something to smack without disrupting anybody’s education.

Err, wait.  I mean, intentionally introducing parasites into the human body so that the immune system has something to attack & is less likely to inflame the bowels, joints, liver, etc.  Apparently the symptoms of several autoimmune diseases can be ameliorated by parasites; here is one recent reference but there are many others.

Of course, harboring parasites is often not fun.  But as long as the parasites make you less ill than your own body’s attacks against itself did, why not?  Because autoimmune disorders are horrible — attempting to treat them with parasites is way more reasonable than using tapeworms to lose weight.

And, as a new parent, I also spend time thinking about prevention.  I slather my pale baby with sunscreen before we play outside.  And I make her play outside — major lifestyle changes over the last few decades probably explain our current allergy epidemic, with the incidence of peanut allergies & celiac disease up to 1% or higher.  Huge numbers of people who’ll suffer from these ailments for their whole lives.

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The most striking data on allergy prevention suggests that you should raise children on a farm.  For a lot of people, that’s not really feasible.  Even if K & I had the space, we wouldn’t raise animals — given that we can live well without subjugating any critters, I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.  But we can still take N to visit the pigs at our local farmed-animal sanctuary, and hopefully that’ll help a little.

Plus, we play outside.  Yes, the epidemiological data suggests that being outside on a farm helps most, but you can do pretty well just by getting out, running around, and playing in the dirt.

(Although even playing in the dirt is tricky.  It has to be clean dirt.  Bacteria are fine.  Some other soil parasites — a kid might get sick, but it’ll often be temporary sickness.  The whole thing about an immune system needing work to do means that nothing comes free.  But, ingesting petroleates would be bad.  Or heavy metals.  Halogenated aromatics.  And — yay pretend capitalism where businesses are allowed to impose negative externalities for free! — a lot of that dreck has been dumped for years.  Here in Bloomington we have a big tire factory & dirt on the properties downhill from it are poisoned.  Unless you have access to a good mass spec, your best bet for learning whether land is safe for a kid to grubble around on is to read up on its history.  Which is crummy to have to do, but the peculiar incarnation of capitalism indoctrinated by the U.S. has resulted in many horrors that still reverberate.)

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