Justin Barker discovered his love for animals and knack for animal activism as a middle schooler living in the suburbs of Northern California. Despite school bullying, family strife, and an ongoing identity crisis, Barker was motivated to advocate for animals after picking up a copy of Ingrid Newkirk’s Kids Can Save the Animals! 101 Easy Things to Do at a used bookstore. Bear Boy: The True Story of a Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to be Free is a young adult work that encapsulates Barker’s coming-of-age as both a queer teen boy and an animal activist.
Deemed “Bear Boy” by local media, Barker shares the story of how he fought to release two black bears, Brutus and Ursula, from cruel living conditions at a local zoo. Barker is as passionate in his activism as he is in his storytelling. Bear Boy is a thoughtful, honest portrayal of life as a young teen. Barker does not shy away from sharing family disputes, dismissal from adults in his life, or his experience coming out. The accessible, personable nature of Barker’s writing makes his story all the more engaging.
What makes Bear Boy perhaps most notable is the unapologetic nature of Barker’s perspective. So often vegan writers, understandably, feel the need to evidence their beliefs with facts about climate change, animal cognition, and the economic value of pursuing animal rights. Though there is absolutely value in adding these perspectives, Barker instead focuses on one issue: right versus wrong. Is it right to hold wild animals in captivity? Is it right to force bears to eat food that is not supportive of their dietary needs? Is it right to watch animals suffer and stand idly by? Rather than debate, Barker writes purely from emotion, a tactic that is sure to captivate readers.
Though written as a memoir for young adults, the story of Justin Barker and his persona “Bear Boy” is one for all ages. There is some relatable aspect of Barker’s story for everyone, both vegan and nonvegan alike. In addition to animal rights, Bear Boy artfully encapsulates themes of social isolation, identity, search for purpose, and parent/child conflict. Barker has a strong narrative voice and a powerful story to share. Ultimately, Bear Boy is a beautifully told, welcome addition to any bookshelf.
Click here to read our interview with Justin Barker.
Animal activist Justin Barker discovered his passion for saving animals as a young teenager. Faced with routine bullying at school, dismissive adults, and an unyielding desire to rescue animals from confinement, Barker set out to free two black bears named Brutus and Ursula from a defunct zoo in Northern California, deeming him “Bear Boy”. Now, 25 years later, Barker is sharing his story in Bear Boy: The True Story of A Boy, Two Bears, and the Fight to be Free.
Why did you decide to share your story now?
Justin Barker: I started writing Bear Boy 10 years ago because a book about animal rights changed my life when I was thirteen. I wanted to pay that forward with a book for young people who either already know how powerful they are or for ones who need a nudge to discover their strength.
I think animal rights is a great entry point into all sorts of activism. For me, my activism started with animal rights and over time expanded into the social and environmental justice movements. My hope is that young people who read this book see that with some determination and persistence, change is possible. Plus, Brutus and Ursula’s plight perfectly highlights the struggles animals face in captivity and I wanted to write a book that inspires a new generation to take a hard look at zoos.
You share a lot about your treatment at school and dealing with bullies in “Bear Boy”. Do you think these experiences helped you empathize with the poor treatment of the animals you encountered?
JB: I don’t think I realized that at the time, but as I was writing this book, it became very clear to me that the bullying that so many young people experience is no different than the lack of empathy animals face — particularly ones locked behind bars. You don’t have to be at any zoo long before you witness the same taunting, teasing, laughter, and mockery that runs rampant in school hallways.
Only when I discovered my compassion for animals and the tools to stand up for them was I able to find compassion for myself. That’s when everything changed in my life.
You’ve been an activist for years now. How do you avoid burnout?
JB: Sometimes this work can be overwhelming and pretty daunting. Witnessing animal abuse can take a real toll. Finding mentors and allies is critical to sustaining this work. We need people we can lean on both emotionally and strategically.
We know real lasting change takes years and even decades. Just count how many years and local protests it took to close down Ringling Brother Circus. It’s so important to keep your eyes on the ultimate outcome while celebrating small successes in the direction of change.
Plus, we have to harness our creativity and never forget to have fun. What’s that Emma Goldman quote? “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”.
And don’t forget to drink water!
When your story first went to the national media you received an outpouring of support. Did you receive any negative feedback or antagonism? If so, how did you deal with it?
JB: This story happened long before social media, so I never had to deal with trolls or anything like that. The support I received was all via mail or phone calls — and it was overwhelmingly positive. Oh the ‘90s! Kids at school always had those hypothetical questions they love asking vegans, which I always tried to turn into teaching opportunities.
The biggest challenge I faced was from all of the adults who tried to dismiss my work. If I made a dollar for every “no” I heard over those years, I could have been rich. But that was the secret to the campaign. I was determined to prove all those adults wrong — for the animals.
I’m sure “Bear Boy” will be very inspiring for a lot of young activists. What advice do you have for young activists just starting out?
JB: My biggest advice for young activists is to find global issues they are passionate about and focus on local solutions. There is so much that we can do locally to solve big problems.
For me, the tragedy of keeping animals in cages was something I wanted to do something about, so I went to my local zoo to see what I could do to help the animals there. That activism eventually led to my work standing up for Brutus and Ursula. That very local story allowed me to share my message of compassion and condemnation of captivity to a global audience.
Do you have any other books in the works?
JB: The children’s publishing industry is an unabashed supporter of the zoo industry. It wasn’t until I became a Dad that I realized how many children’s books celebrate keeping animals in cages. All of these children’s stories normalize the incarceration of animals and prime children to go to the zoo. What are we actually teaching children about animals and how might this early exposure to captivity impact our views of the imprisonment of people? I’d like my next book to be geared towards younger kids and for it to be a story that celebrates animals with lighthearted and playful critiques of zoos.
Any advice for fellow vegan writers?
JB: Stop waiting for permission. Agents, traditional publishing deals, and all of those typical gatekeepers so many writers turn to are way overrated. We need to hear more stories about compassion towards all living things and we can’t depend on big, corporate entities to tell or publish our stories. And honestly, I’d encourage any writers who need support to reach out to me. It’s also worth looking for a community. I am part of Sentient Media’s Writer Collective which is a fabulous network of writers and animal allies.
And don’t ever forget …. Your writing is activism.
Justin Barker wants you to stand up for yourself and your fellow earthlings. He loves the Spice Girls and he thinks zoos are the worst. He is a San Francisco-based TV producer, writer, and activist. Justin and his wife, Bridget, are parents to Noah and their rescued pup, Beatrice, and are queer AF. They believe #LoveisLove, #BlackLivesMatter, and thirst for a more just and equitable world.
Bear Boy will be released on June 22, 2021. Preorder your copy here!
Tessa Altman joins Tofu Reader with her favorite titles from Vegan Book Club, the online community dedicated to vegan-related and animal-friendly literature and discussion. Check out Tessa’s book picks and commentary below!
Tessa Altman:As a vegan, it’s almost impossible to pick up a book – especially a novel – and see yourself represented in a positive light. Enter Vegan Book Club, where plant-based bookworms read a variety of fiction and non-fiction that is all vegan-related or animal-friendly and have the chance to discuss those books (and more) with like-minded people. Since Vegan Book Club’s formation nearly two years ago, I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of books – genres and authors that I would have never bothered to pick up previously. Of course, I rate some of these books higher than others, so here are a few books we’ve read that I think are absolute must-reads!
My Year of Meatsby Ruth Ozeki
TA: Ruth Ozeki’s debut may have been published in 1998, but it’s still wildly relevant today, forcing readers to take a hard look at our plates. What are we eating? How exactly was it produced? How do the hormones given to livestock impact us as humans? These are important questions to ask, and My Year of Meats does so while analyzing the differences between Japanese and American culture, with a vegetarian couple featured as a bonus.
Esther the Wonder Pig by Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter with Caprice Crane
TA: Is there a more heartwarming presence on social media than Esther the Wonder Pig? Take a look at Esther’s Instagram and tell me you don’t want to learn more about her. Esther the Wonder Pig is filled with equal parts wit and heart and provides an excellent primer on compassion.
Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
TA: Like a Love Story isn’t the norm, as far as Vegan Book Club picks go – it takes no particular stance on animal rights, but one of the main characters happens to be a vegetarian – but I’d argue that this YA novel is essential reading. Set in 1989, Abdi Nazemian’s debut novel tackles some heavy issues: homophobia, sexuality, AIDS, first love, first heartbreak…Like a Love Story is, in a word, powerful.
Always Too Much and Never Enough by Jasmin Singer
TA: Always Too Much and Never Enough details vegan writer, podcaster, and activist Jasmin Singer’s efforts to find herself. When Singer first went vegan, she defied the “skinny vegan” stereotypes and eventually realized that, for as much compassion she had for animals, she didn’t have a whole lot of that for herself. At its core, Always Too Much and Never Enough is, all at once, witty, painful, and inspiring.
Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
TA: Octavia E. Butler pulls no punches in Dawn, the first novel in her Xenogenesis trilogy, and certainly doesn’t shy away from the anti-meat attitudes. Butler exposes us to a unique brand of aliens, who, despite having livestock, refuse to eat animals and won’t let the humans eat them either. It’s fascinating really, as the entire series explores themes of sexuality, gender, and race as well – all essential for an intersectional approach to veganism.
Sistah Vegan by A. Breeze Harper
TA: Veganism is often perceived as a rich, white person thing, and it’s no surprise why: more often than not white people are at the center of the movement. That’s why it’s important for books like Sistah Vegan to exist. Here, A. Breeze Harper provides a space for Black-identified female vegans to discuss their personal experiences and thoughts on health, animal rights, and liberation for all.
Tessa Altman is a reader, writer, and vegan who loves an animal-friendly protagonist. After reading one too many novels portraying vegans/vegetarians in a negative light, she founded Vegan Book Club, an online community for plant-based bookworms.
Will Staples, the screenwriter perhaps best known for his work on the videogame Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and the upcoming Amazon Original Without Remorse, makes his first foray into novel writing with Animals. Clearly a passion project for Staples, Animals revolves around a rotating narrative of characters impacted by and participating in exotic animal exploitation. Animals is a gritty, dark, well-researched exposé of global animal trafficking that would appease any John Grisham fan. And, yet, despite the detailed attention paid to the logistics of animal trafficking, Staples’ portrayal of women, and particularly Chinese women, leaves something to be desired.
Staples tells the intertwined stories of a park ranger-turned-vigilante, an insurance agent profiting in the world of zoos, a government agent determined to make the connection between foreign terrorism and animal trafficking, and a mother who turns to alternative medicine to treat her dying son. Staples creates a fascinating, terrifying illustration of the underground crime world of animal trafficking and exploitation. Details of the trade are artfully interwoven without becoming dry or tiresome. One debate on endangered species between two main characters, held over a serving of bluefin, is particularly poignant. Staples is clearly passionate about the subject of animal exploitation. Unfortunately, he is not nearly as impassioned about the representation of women in Animals.
Though the representation of female characters in Animals is certainly no reason to disavow an otherwise competent work, it is an important note to keep in mind. Audrey, a mother whose sense of normalcy has degraded along with the health of her son, is notably the most hollow of the four primary perspectives in Animals. Her character shift is extreme and never seems fully justified. Perhaps she would be more believable if more time was dedicated to her development and less to the multiple descriptions of pubescent teenage girls. In one particularly uncomfortable passage Staples writes of a character, “…struck by the juxtaposition of the attractive, mature-looking teen and her room with its toy-themed bedding”. In another Staples describes a brothel where “skinny teenage girls [linger] in their shrink-wrapped cocktail dresses and ice pick heels”. And yet, despite a few descriptive pitfalls, Animals is, admittedly, a pretty great read.
Animals is the perfect introduction to the ins and outs of the animal trafficking industry. Staples provides great insight and is able to effectively capture the perspectives of the many players in the business. Animals is an intense, fast-paced thriller that is sure to leave readers with a better understanding of animal trafficking and, ideally, a new motivation to fight this horrific industry.
The term “animal rights advocate” tends to conjure a very specific image in most people’s minds; an outspoken, overbearing, argumentative and often affluent caricature. Though this image may not apply to the vast majority of advocates, it does describe Henry Bergh, the godfather of the animal rights movement in the United States. Author Ernest Freeberg’s depiction of Henry Bergh in A Traitor to His Species:Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement is one of a complex, eccentric man dedicated to making the lives of animals just slightly more tolerable.
Bergh was by no means a perfect advocate. Freeberg clearly outlines Bergh’s misogyny, classism, and view of meat consumption as a “necessary evil”. And yet, without Bergh’s tenacity, an alternate future for the animal rights movement is difficult to imagine. Freeberg’s vivid writing tells us the story of a stubborn man determined to lead with moral authority. Comprehensive research paired with great storytelling weaves a fascinating narrative of the various public trials and feuds in which Bergh seemed to compulsively engage. Each chapter of A Traitor to His Species covers one piece of the puzzle for animal rights. From dog fighting to methods of transporting turtles to the treatment of carriage horses, A Traitor to His Species flawlessly encompasses the life and work of Henry Bergh.
Freeberg artfully toes the line between critical reflection and admiration that every biographist must manage. In one section, Freeberg traces the linear journey from Bergh’s advocacy for removing animal slaughter from public view to increased meat consumption and a lack of empathy for animals deemed “livestock”. In another chapter, Freeberg discusses Bergh’s brief work as an advocate against cruelty to children for, in Bergh’s mind, “children are animals”. No advocate for any cause will ever be perfect and that is okay. Freeberg’s portrayal of Bergh’s imperfection is wholly honest and his insight is fascinating. A Traitor to His Species is a must-read for animal rights advocates and history buffs alike.
Poet, educator, and indie book seller Gretchen Primack has spent years advocating for the rights and welfare of non-human animals. Primack’s latest release, Kind, is a beautiful, absolutely necessary collection of poetry exploring the relationship between humans, the environment, and animals.
You currently teach poetry workshops to incarcerated persons. Do you find that there is any connection between our food system and our prison system?
Gretchen Primack: Absolutely. I think both systems are very much about power and hubris–and how dangerous the two are when combined. As soon as we see some as lesser and some as greater, some as more worthy and some as less worthy, we’re in dangerous territory. Our prison system is the result of people thinking black, brown, and poor people are lesser; our food system is the result of people thinking (other) animals are lesser. The justice system and food system we would create without these huge power differentials would be completely different. If we have inherent respect, we don’t exploit the same way.
The new release of Kind is a reprint, including several new poems and added artwork. What was it like to return to this book after several years?
GP: An utter pleasure! I’ve been doing readings from Kind all along, so the poems were still alive for me, but the opportunity to transform the collection through new poems and new art gave me real joy. Lantern Publishing did a gorgeous job with it, and gave me freedom to create work and welcome artists that would add so much.
There are so many wonderful poems in this collection. One of my personal favorites is “God’s Glory”, which emphasizes the need to recognize the value of all creatures – regardless of size. Where do you find inspiration?
GP: I’m so glad you love “God’s Glory”! It’s actually the cornerstone of the collection, the first one I wrote for this book! I found inspiration for it in a sad true story. I was doing a month-long residency at an artists’ colony, tucked away in Vermont with several other artists and writers, when I overheard a fellow resident talking about the fact that he’d killed a mouse in “his” room the night before. I thought, your room? This was much more that mouse’s house than yours, seeing as you’ll be packing to go soon from this temporary residency; the other mice will be here after, down a family member because of your hubris and domination. (There’s the power I was talking about above.) I sat down to write and ended up with “God’s Glory.”
When I write, I’m trying to explore a situation’s dynamics through art. In that case, I was moved by frustration and anger. Sometimes I’m propelled by other feelings: love, loneliness, grief, impotence, awe. Really looking at a leaf or a bird, thinking about the death of a beloved pet, brimming over with love for my beloved: all can lead to poems.
The artwork throughout the book is beautiful. How did you select these art pieces to accompany your poetry?
GP: Because I’m drawn to other genres as much as poetry, I’ve had the honor of knowing several vegan artists and having their art on my walls. I knew Dana Ellyn’s and Jane O’hara’s visions would make sense in conversation with these poems. The third artist, Gus Mueller, is…well…my husband! So in his case I commissioned pieces for specific poems (for the other artists, I chose existing pieces that harmonized).
What do you hope for readers to take away from Kind, particularly those that may be completely new to animal rights and veganism?
GP: I very much want people to think about what their choices around animals mean—where they come from, who they serve, how well they do or don’t reflect their values. We’re taught over and over, directly and indirectly, that other species are below us, that we deserve to dominate. That’s not true, it’s just what we’re fed, and for very good reason if we’re lazy thinkers or if we’re part of the power structures that rely on that premise (circuses, clothing companies, food companies, restaurants, grocery stores, pharmaceutical companies, I could go on).
Imagine a world where we’re kind. Where we care about what our choices mean for other species. Where we put our energy into finding alternatives for the cruelty and environmental destruction that we consider normal. The world would be utterly and beautifully changed.
These poems yearn for that world. They undermine hubris and reach for humility and kindness. They envision that world, they illuminate it, they challenge the reader to imagine it, too, and be part of a transformation.
Do you find catharsis in using your writing to promote animal rights?
GP: Caring about animals can feel so overwhelming. I feel most at peace when I’m working toward a different world. Being vegan helps me in this regard, but so does writing and getting the poems into the world where they can be a small part of change, of an arc bent toward justice.
Any other books currently in the works?
GP: I’m so busy concentrating on this one, I haven’t turned my attention to new projects! But hopefully soon….
Any advice for fellow vegan poets?
GP: Write vegan poems! All of us in the animal activism world need to use our skills, tools, and talents. If you’re a filmmaker, make vegan films. If you’re a plumber, give free plumbing to animal organizations. If you’re a PR person, do PR around animal issues. If you’re a poet, write vegan poems! Humans are complicated, so we don’t know what’s going to move a particular person and spur change. A documentary? A speech? A cooking class? A poem? We need all options readily available so that we can reach as many people as possible.
Gretchen Primack is a poet, educator, and indie bookseller living in New York’s Hudson Valley. She has taught and/or administrated with prison education programs (mostly college) since 2006.
She’s the author of three poetry collections: Kind (Lantern Publishing), which explores the dynamic between humans and other animals in our time and place; Visiting Days (Willow Books), which imagines a maximum-security men’s NYS prison like the ones where she’s taught; and Doris’ Red Spaces (Mayapple Press), a more personal collection; along with a chapbook, The Slow Creaking of Planets (Finishing Line). She co-wrote The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animalswith Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary co-founder Jenny Brown (Penguin Avery).
Croatia-based novelist and poet Bernard Jan has written extensively about themes of animal rights, advocacy, and the relationship between humans and animals. His latest book, Cruel Summer, is about the journey of a young man trying to survive through personal trauma in a climate ravaged society.
How long have you been an animal rights advocate?
Bernard Jan: I have been an animal rights advocate and activist since November 2001. But we can say that my animal advocating years started much earlier when I wrote my novella Look for Me Under the Rainbow back in 1992. These were my first steps into animal advocating, and this book made me go vegetarian then. I can say that the story of an adorable seal pup, Danny and the Rainbow Warrior activist and environmentalist, Helen, who went on a mission to save the animals before the seal hunt began set me on this path.
Your Amazon bio mentions that you translated Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust by Charles Patterson into Croatian. What was that experience like?
BJ: Translating Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust by Charles Patterson was both amazing and a challenging experience. Charles was great and full of understanding when he was explaining to me some terms and words I didn’t meet with before. It was also a very educational and emotional experience because of the content of the book and true stories I was translating. I learned a lot; I cried a lot over the things and experiences that both shocked me and deeply moved me. Even today, after many animal rights books I’ve read since then, I could say that Eternal Treblinka left the deepest impact on me. It is still among my favorite animal rights books, if not the book. Not because I worked on its Croatian translation, but because it portrays the history of animal (and human) exploitation and abuse in a unique way, with many historical facts you cannot argue or contradict. It was a true honor working on this book, and I am grateful to Charles Patterson for having faith in me.
I just finished reading January River. Though you are based in Croatia, you do a great job of capturing the essence of small town America. What sort of research did you do for the novel?
BJ: Thank you, Olivia! I am glad you think so and like January River. This American small town, Greenfield, has lived in me for some time before I brought it to life on the pages of my book. I watched many movies and read books that helped me portray such a town. But I also did research, visiting the American Library in the US General Consulate in Zagreb, browsing books and articles which helped me feel the spirit of Greenfield. And, of course, I used a lot of my imagination. I wanted to create a paradise place, a place where everyone felt welcomed and safe, where people lead fulfilled and happy lives, despite personal tragedies that happen to all of us and which we cannot escape. I wanted to portray and give a place to my readers I would love to visit and find my peace there. And maybe stay for a while, or longer than that.
Are there any autobiographical aspects of January River?
BJ: There are no autobiographical aspects of January River except my two wishes, which were my motivational force to write this novel: one of them was to have a dog like Riv, and the other one that bordered with obsession was to visit New York City. I never had a golden retriever, though I was blessed for having an amazing cat for almost 15 years before we had to put Marcel to sleep because of his deteriorating health condition and old age. But my biggest wish came true, and on September 11, 2000, I visited New York, three years after writing January River and seven years before publishing it in Croatian. Staying in New York and Jersey City, and exploring Manhattan up and down for twelve days, visiting all the places I described in my two novels, January River and Cruel Summer, was a dream come true. If I had any doubts before, I was sure I was in love with that city when I was in NYC. My heart bloomed with love for New York there. I will never forget that small part of my life and will always be grateful to my friend Lidija and my parents for making it happen.
Your latest book, Cruel Summer, focuses more on themes of human rights. Do you believe there is a connection between human and animal rights?
BJ: That is correct. Cruel Summer is a YA cross-genre novel about an abused teenage boy from NYC who had two passions: skateboarding and poetry. Both were his escape from the reality and all the bad things that were happening to him, things he had been hiding for years until everything went wrong when he stood up for himself.
I do not believe there is a connection between human and animal rights; I am certain of that. The way we live and treat other living creatures and our planet cannot exclude our treatment of humans, or human animals, if we want to put it that way. Yes, humans are responsible for the plight of animals and extinction of animal species and devastation of our planet. But treating animals and humans alike with kindness, empathy, and compassion is our moral obligation. We don’t have to condone all human acts, but we have to be a good example and show that compassion, tolerance and care for each other is the best way to change things for the better. Abuse knows no difference and has no limits or borders. Everyone has a potential to be abused either mentally or physically, we are living in such a world, such a society. And victims are victims, no matter the species. All victims need our help, all of them who are abused, raped, abducted, torn from their families, tortured and murdered. If I want to be honest, I don’t see any other way out of this mess we have created.
Any other books currently in the works?
BJ: I have one more book I plan to release, hopefully late 2021 or early 2022. I will say only two keywords and phrases as hints: Cruel Summer + poetry.
Any advice for fellow vegan writers?
BJ: My advice for fellow vegan writers would be to use your compassion, talent, and the power of the written word. Give the best of yourself and put it to the best use. Change the world in a kind way, show your readers that we can create our small universes of compassion, tolerance, acceptance and love for all creatures. Teach them that every little thing counts, explaining to them that the change won’t happen overnight. Maybe not even during our lifetime. But that’s not a reason not to pave the way for new generations that will walk this earth after us and treat animals and humans as equals, with respect and acceptance. With kindness and love. And I am not talking about utopia here. I am talking about the only way of survival on this planet.
As veganism grows in popularity, the amount of literature on vegan cooking grows exponentially. With this sort of landscape, it can be difficult for a vegan cookbook to stand out. Luckily, The Everything Easy Vegan Cookbook by Diane K. Smith proves to be a solid resource for those aspiring to incorporate animal product-free recipes into their repertoire. The Everything Easy Vegan Cookbook is an accessible introduction to vegan cooking; “introduction” being the key word.
The cookbook opens with a chapter on the benefits of eating vegan. Smith ensures these benefits are explained in a simple, approachable manner. Many of these benefits are not new to those who have done even a little bit of research on the vegan diet. My only complaint is with the brief discussion of weight loss as a benefit of the vegan diet. Smith likens weight loss to looking like a celebrity; this feels a little flippant. After all, there is no body type associated with veganism and insinuating that there is will be a red flag to some considering a vegan diet. Similarly, a directive to visit PETA.org for more information, without further instruction, feels a little lazy. However, these are relatively minor issues. After all, readers have assumedly picked up this book because they want to cook vegan. So, onto the recipes!
Though some purists will not like the copious inclusions of ingredients like “vegan beef” and “vegan cheddar cheese”, I’ve found that meat and dairy substitutes are a great way to ease into a plant-based diet. In this way, The Everything Easy Vegan Cookbook does live up to its name. Purchasing meat and dairy alternatives is simply easier than creating one’s own homemade plant-based beef or cheese. Additionally, Smith’s entire section dedicated to tofu is excellent. Even as someone relatively well-versed in cooking tofu I found quite a bit of inspiration in these recipes.
Ultimately, The Everything Easy Vegan Cookbook may fall a bit flat for experienced vegans. However, the book’s offerings for new vegans and the vegan-curious are deserving of some credit. The recipes are easy to follow, most including pretty common household ingredients, and helpful tips line the recipe pages. Personally, the Scallion Pancakes and Pizza Bagels were winners in my household. The Everything Easy Vegan Cookbook will not be groundbreaking for most, but will be ideal for some.
Influential vegans and vegetarians have contributed to the critical analysis of meat consumption for decades. There are many examples of animal rights as a theme across the literary landscape. Listed here are just a few notable names of vegan and vegetarian authors predominately active during the 20th Century.
Perhaps most renowned for his progressive Socialist views, Sinclair practiced vegetarianism on and off throughout his life. In 1905 Sinclair published The Jungle, a work of fiction that served as an exposé of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. The Jungle resulted in U.S. meat sales decreasing by half and paved the way for legislation including the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Image: Upton Sinclair, 1900, Public domain
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Singer spent much of his life fascinated with the concept of vegetarianism. At the age of 21 he wrote an alternative to the Ten Commandments to include an eleventh: “Do not kill nor exploit the animal, do not eat its flesh, do not flail its hide, don’t force it to do things against its nature.” Though Singer did not become a vegetarian until later in life, much of the work throughout his career is tinged with themes of animal rights; his 1935 novel Satan in Goray is an excellent example.
Image: Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1978, Copyright unknown
Author Octavia Butler was the first science fiction author to receive the MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Though Butler’s veganism/vegetarianism is based primarily in speculation, she often incorporated themes related to consumption, alternative societies, and the environment in her work. Notably, Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy hosts several examples of anti-meat eating sentiments.
Image: Octavia Butler, n.d., Patti Perret
Civil rights activist Angela Davis is perhaps most known for her writing on racism, feminism, and Marxism. Though many of her works, including If They Come in the Morning and Women, Race, and Class, highlight issues related to human rights, Davis has emphasized the correlation between human and animal treatment. In her own words, “I think there is a connection between … the way we treat animals and the way we treat people who are at the bottom of the hierarchy.”
Image: Angela Davis, 1974, Everett Collection/REX
Brigid Brophy, a famed author and journalist, was once referred to by Time magazine as “the acknowledged high priestess of the British intelligentsia”. Brophy publicly declared herself to be anti-vivisection and a vegetarian in a controversial 1965 essay titled “The Rights of Animals”. Brophy later adopted a vegan diet. She often incorporated her support of animal rights into her written work. Notably, her 1962 book Black Ship to Hell analyzes the destructive nature of man and man’s relationship to other living creatures.
Animal rights scholar and proponent of the abolitionist approach Gary L. Francione returns with his latest book, Why Veganism Matters: The Moral Value of Animals. In Why Veganism Matters Francione purports that the only means of ending nonhuman animal exploitation is to give nonhuman animals the rights associated with personhood. Francione explains that nonhuman animals are currently considered by most to be “quasi-persons”, meaning that while we understand that nonhuman animals are sentient, their societal status falls somewhere between “person” and “object”. The only sufficient way to end animal exploitation is to grant nonhuman animals personhood. While Francione certainly makes an interesting argument for the abolitionist approach, he does not necessarily make a compelling one.
The overarching issue with Francione’s assessment is the assumption that all humans are considered persons, thus granting them the privileges and protections of personhood. Most importantly: when someone is considered a person by society that society is, as Francione puts it, “compelled to justify pain and suffering put upon them” (pg. 3). We do not consider nonhuman animals people and, therefore, do not feel morally obligated to justify their pain and suffering. The primary problem with this argument is that, frankly, all humans are not considered persons.
“Person” status is not automatically granted to many individuals, as evidenced by our society’s pervasive dedication to systemic racism, misogyny, and ableism. Though Francione does mention racism, he compares the treatment of animals to slavery. The arguement here being that the end of slavery granted former enslaved persons and their descendants personhood. This is simply not true, as Black Americans continue to suffer ongoing abuse, trauma, and death.
Similarly, Francione often contrasts the treatment of people suffering from dementia to that of nonhuman animals. Though a dementia patient may not have certain cognitive characteristics associated with sentience (and, thus, personhood), we still consider them people, while withholding that status from nonhuman animals. Yet, if this were true, then how do we explain the rampant elder abuse occurring in long term care facilities throughout the U.S.? Notable here is also the fact that Francione repeatedly refers to neurotypical individuals as “normal” and neurodivergent individuals as “cognitively impaired”. I could not help but be distracted by this glaringly ableist choice of words.
Despite flaws in Francione’s theory of personhood, he is a sufficient writer. However, the dense, academic nature of the text will likely be a turn off to most casual readers. It is doubtful that this is the book to convert nonvegans to veganism, as Francione’s writing is fairly esoteric. Ultimately, Why Veganism Matters is a relatively unremarkable entry into the ever growing collection of vegan theory texts.