Live Kindly, Tread Lightly -Animals and Us

The focus here is mainly on animal welfare: news of campaigns, and occasional interviews with inspirational people who try to make the world a kinder place.

Animal Advocate interview: illustrator and author Mini Grey

Illustrator Mini Grey is well-known and loved for her highly distinctive style of pictorial story-telling – it’s energetic, colourful and full of witty detail, every bit as appealing to adults as to children. She worked in theatre and schools before studying sequential design at Brighton University, and has acquired a range of skills including puppet-making, welding, carpentry and set design.


When she entered the world of children’s books with The Princess and the Pea and Biscuit Bear, her talent was immediately recognised: she was selected as one of the Booktrust’s Best New Illustrators, going on to win the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal in 2007 for The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon.


Her new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, published this month, is a real tour de force – I won’t be at all surprised if it wins Mini the Kate Greenaway Medal for a second time, and I hope it will.


I’d known of Mini’s brilliant books for many years, but it was when I met, walked and talked with her on a youth climate protest in Oxford, and then read her article Fury at the Farm (more about that below), that I realised she’s an animal advocate and environmental campaigner. You can find out more on her blog, Sketching Weakly.


I don’t usually have the chance to meet my guests in person, but for this feature I met Mini, appropriately, in the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.

Linda: First of all, congratulations on your wonderful new book! How did the idea come about? How long have you been working on it?



Mini: About ten years! This Museum is a regular haunt for me and my son Herbie. When Herbie was about 5, we began wondering how to understand the concept of 4.6 billion years, the life of the planet, and started making a timeline. Later, Pollock’s Toy Theatre invited various artists to make toy theatres in the Victorian tradition, and with mine I had the idea of insects telling the story of life on Earth. This led to the idea of using the different parts of a theatre: the main stage (the scenes of life evolving), the wings, which give pictorial information, and the orchestra pit, which would be an unrolling tape-measure of time, each centimetre representing one million years. In that scale, it’s astonishing to realise that all of human life occupies less than the final three millimetres! When I made a dummy of a theatre book, my editor saw it and was keen, and it went from there.


Linda: Your books often have an unusual narrative standpoint, and here it’s insects who take us through the vast span of geological time. Why insects?



Mini: That was partly inspired by the great collections of insects – dead and living! – here at the Museum, and I thought of having insects as observers telling the story. Also I wanted to step outside our human point of view, and see what the story of life would look like from an arthropod viewpoint.


Linda: Your article Fury at the Farm looks at the idea most of us have, from childhood, of a picture-book farm: “a random collection of one or a few of several animals living together with a farmer – it’s a kind of animal sanctuary. No-one gets killed. The main danger is usually foxes or wolves. Old MacDonald had a picture book farm. Eee-i-eee-i-oh….”


It’s an excellent article, acknowledging the value of animal stories for the very young, but also stating that “The farm myth in picture books acts as a very useful screen.” It helps create cognitive dissonance about meat, letting people see themselves as animal lovers while ignoring the cruelty behind the meat on their plates. To counter this, you say that “the picture book superpower is to be able to put the reader into the place of someone else … Someone who might be a chicken,” and your story Doris, the Chicken who Changed the World was published in The Puffin Book of Big Dreams.  “You’ll never believe this, I know, but once upon a time, people used to eat animals...”


Have you any plans to write more stories in this vein?



Mini: I think the world need to hear about farming from a chicken’s point of view, and it’s time for a picture book with a brave chicken hero. (hint, hint!)

One of the ideas Mini suggests in that article, and in more detail on her blog, is for food to be properly labelled so that we know what we’re buying in terms of animal welfare and environmental impact. While we talked, we had coffee and cake at the Eat the Future café in the museum, where most of the meal choices are labelled in this way: A for least impact, E for most. Here are the illustrations from Mini's article and one more serious suggestion for food labelling. Food packaging is labelled for calorie content, vitamins, carbohydrates, etc.; shouldn't we also know what our food costs in animal suffering and carbon emissions?

Linda: Your son Herbie (to whom the book is dedicated, as well as to the Museum of Natural History) is now 15. As he’s grown up, how have you found a balance between informing and encouraging responsible choices, on the one hand, and giving a depressing picture of the future of humankind, on the other? With Herbie and his friends, do you see fears for the future / awareness of the situation we’re in / ambition to make things better for their generation?



Mini: I think he does feel that depressing picture of the future, and he has been on a few of the school climate strikes. But I think he’s not that keen to discuss because it’s just misery-inducing.


Linda: Your blog Sketching Weakly is almost a political manifesto – you introduce such detailed ideas for better, greener ways of living. It makes me think that you’d be a great County Councillor, politician or climate advisor!  Have you ever thought of taking part in public life this way? Or do you think you can make more impact through your art and writing, using that ‘picture book superpower”?


 Mini: I fear that being a councillor involves a LOT of tasks that aren’t being an eco-warrior. But I think it’s also very difficult for ordinary individuals to stand up to decisions that councils take – especially where to build. I think it’s time, especially in the light of Oxford having declared a climate emergency, to commit to only building in places that have already been built upon or that are biologically bereft. And that would mean not – not to build – as Oxford City are planning – on ancient meadows in the middle of Iffley Village, near my home. Here's the leaflet I've produced about that.

Linda: There’s a lovely post on your blog called If Sketching Weakly Ruled the World in which you find two reasons for hope, both derived from our experience of Covid and lockdown: Firstly, People will step up to a Big Ask, i.e. changing our behaviour quite drastically to meet the urgency of the pandemic, and secondly, People Love Nature – many people relished their local walks by rivers, in parks, etc., and found a new appreciation of the natural world and its wildlife. You ask whether we can use these two things to tackle climate change – and clearly you believe that yes, we can! 


Mini: Yes, I decided to try and write a post about what I would do if I was in charge of the world – as a way of finding out if there were a few things that stood out as possible solutions to our planetary problems.

Linda: You had the chance to take part in the Oxford Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change. What did you take from this? Did the whole experience give you hope? 


Mini: Changing behaviour was a theme that came up constantly, and that change is happening, but never fast enough. Some changes are down to individuals, such as changing our energy supplier or heating system, getting an electric vehicle or turning down the heat, but all these would happen faster with a nudge for behaviour change. A price on Carbon is the nudge the world needs. How can we make it easier to do the right thing, and harder to do the wrong thing? Pricing has a big impact on behaviour change.



There was one slot for biodiversity, called ‘Biodiversity and Offsetting’. It added up to a disappointingly brief part of the weekend with very little time to address the subject of using nature to help the causes and impacts of climate change. We need to think long-term, e.g. over the next 100 years, about what we want our local city and landscape to look like. The green areas around cities are the green space that’s the most used and valued of all. With the wider landscape, can we improve it to boost wildlife, sequester more CO2, and hold more water? That would be win-win-win!

Linda: What new projects are on the way?


Mini: Really, getting The Greatest Show into the World!



Linda: Thanks so much for answering my questions – and congratulations today on the publication of this very special book! I’m readers of all ages will love it.


Finally, these panels on Mini's website are so appealing that I couldn't resist including this one, to give you another taste of her distinctive and engaging style.

Animal Advocate interview: John Oberg

Welcome to my first guest from the United States! John Oberg is an animal advocate from Michigan, who now lives in Richmond, Virginia. He’s devoted his entire career to campaigning for animals: after several years working for The Humane League and Vegan Outreach, he found that social media transformed the way he works, and launched his own independent, patron-funded programme in 2019. He now offers training in the effective use of social media for advocacy, working with groups and individuals around the world. He is, of course, a regular presence on Twitter, posting photographs, videos and information to encourage compassion and empathy for animals.



You can find out much more – tips, articles and links - from his website. Follow John on Twitter: @JohnOberg 

Linda:  Were you brought up to be vegetarian? If not, when or why did you make the connection between loving animals and eating them, and decide to stop?


John: I was not brought up vegetarian! My mom loved animals and instilled a real, deep sense of compassion and empathy for them from a very young age, but despite this, both of us didn’t make the connection between our love for animals and what (and who!) we chose to eat. Later in life, we did make the connection. I went vegetarian at age 21 and vegan at 22. Within a year or two, just as I had followed her lead for many years, she followed my lead and stopped eating animals as well. Our compassionate way of eating was a beautiful experience to share until her passing in late 2015.


Linda:  It was while you were at university in Phoenix, Arizona, that you started networking, which led to your first job with Vegan Outreach. What were you studying, and what had been your career ambition before you set off on this path?



John: I grew up in and near Detroit, Michigan, but it was a program offered at Arizona State University, a bachelor degree in Nonprofit Leadership and Management, that really sparked my interest in moving across the country. I knew that I wanted a career that made a difference in the world, I just didn’t know what that would entail exactly. After moving to Arizona, I became vegan and immediately got involved with local animal advocacy, which was largely comprised of handing out Vegan Outreach pamphlets at events organized by my good friend, Jeff Boghosian. As I continued volunteering and finishing up my bachelor degree, I was offered a position with Vegan Outreach to travel around North America handing out pro-animal pamphlets to college students. I began that in mid-2012. It was my dream job offer.

Linda:  In my own case, I became vegetarian and then vegan because of animal suffering – but now, environmental reasons for avoiding meat and dairy produce are equally powerful. Is this a part of your approach?



John: While there are many compelling reasons to give up eating animals, I find the most authentic approach for my own advocacy to be rooted in compassion for animals. Everybody loves animals and almost no one wants to willingly support animal cruelty, so it’s an easy sell.

Linda:  Where do you feel you’ve been most successful so far? Are there particular campaigns you’ve been involved with that have seen changes in legislation, or in public awareness?


John:  I’ve had the most success in getting hard-hitting content in front of the eyes of many. Posts of mine on my personal Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts have been seen hundreds of millions of times over the past three years since becoming an independent animal advocate funded by the graciousness of fellow animal lovers via my Patreon account. Through this increase in awareness, many have changed their ways and decided to eat and advocate in more compassionate ways.


Linda:  How do you try to get through the ‘blind spots’ of meat-eaters who maintain that it’s their right to eat whatever they choose / that slaughter can be humane / that it’s impossible to be healthy on a vegan diet? You have vast experience with this. What works best?



John:  As a vegan advocate for twelve years and interacting with hundreds of thousands of people in person (and tens of millions online), I’ve heard everything. Funnily enough, it’s usually the same 10-15 arguments I hear on a regular basis. I’ve found the best way to get through to meat-eaters is through being reasonable, rational, and relatable. By meeting people where they are rather than where I want them to be. By being encouraging and compassionate and as non-over-bearing as possible.

Linda:  The Veganuary movement is growing exponentially in the UK and I imagine that more and more people are becoming vegan in the States, too. How would you encourage people who are reluctant to commit themselves? (I feel the same as you – my only regret is that I didn’t make the change sooner!)



John:  The best way to encourage people is to let them know that it’s okay to go at a pace that works for them. They don’t need to go vegan overnight. It’s a marathon not a sprint. I’d rather have someone ease into veganism over a year or two and remain vegan forever than for them to go vegan overnight and give it up in two months or two years. I also try not to overwhelm them with resources. I give them one or two websites and maybe a few recipes to try along with some words of encouragement. I also encourage folks to try to find community (online or in person) as that will help them maintain their veganism.

Linda:  For all campaigners, and for anyone who follows animal matters on social media, there’s a risk of being overwhelmed and utterly sickened by the scale of cruelty and abuse, and that society in general seems to accept it – yet we have to keep going. How do you cope with this?



John:  You have to remember that you aren’t going to personally make the world vegan overnight. There will always be suffering, but it’s about doing what you can to reduce as much of it as possible. To make the world a better place than if you had not engaged in advocacy. You also have to remember that the impact you see will only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the impact you actually make. For every person who tells you that you made them stop eating animals, there are likely dozens of others out there who you’ll never personally hear that from but who you undoubtedly made a massive impact on.

Linda:  What advice would you offer to any young person who wants to campaign for animals?



John:  Engage in a variety of forms of advocacy and see what speaks to you. Make sure to ask yourself if that advocacy seems effective for animals and isn’t just something that makes you personally feel good. Engage in this advocacy in a sustainable ways. It’s better to be a part-time activist for the next 20-50 years than an activist who is engaging in advocacy 24/7 but doesn’t take care of themselves and then burns out in a year or two. And if social media advocacy seems like something you love to do, consider enrolling in either or both of my online courses with Advocacy Collaborative, Mastering Instagram to Change the World, and Mastering Twitter to Change the World.

Linda:  Finally  - what’s your favourite dinner?



John:  My favorite dinner is vegan mac and cheese, which you can learn how to make yourself here! I love seeing non-vegans' reactions when eating this since it's just as good (or better) than the mac cheese they're used to!


(The link takes you to a film of John making it in his kitchen. I'm going to try that ... )

Linda:   Thanks so much, John, for taking the time to answer my questions, and best of luck in all you do to make the world a better place for animals!


John is the third guest in this series, following


Gill Lewis, author and campaigner


Cleve West, top garden designer and animal advocate

Animal Advocate interview: garden designer and animal campaigner Cleve West

Photograph by Chaz Oldham

If you know of Cleve West as a top garden designer, you may be surprised to see him here! Cleve is very highly regarded in his profession, with six Chelsea Flower Show gold medals, two Best Show Garden awards and a People's Choice prize to his credit. The Horatio's Garden he made for Salisbury Hospital's Spinal Treatment Centre was the first of several such projects, all by acclaimed designers.


But alongside all that, Cleve is a passionate advocate for animals and a committed vegan – on social media you’ll find him talking about animal campaigns more often than about gardening. His recent book The Garden of Vegan covers a range of topics from food production and diet to wildlife-friendly gardening.


He is also famous for the delicious onion bhajis he makes for allotment open days, and another sideline is the entertaining Three Men Went to Mow sketches he films with fellow garden designers Joe Swift and James Alexander-Sinclair. 


Find out more from his website, and on social media: 


Twitter @clevewest 

Facebook Cleve West

and Instagram cleve_west

LN: You've been well known for years as a top garden designer. Now it seems that standing up for animals has become as important as your design career, if not more so. What triggered that change? 


Cleve: It was the shock of seeing the horrors of animal agriculture and the damage it’s doing to our health and the environment.  Not speaking out about it felt like complicity. 


I spent a lot of time wondering whether I should use different social media platforms to keep my advocacy for animals separate from work, but that felt like an apologist approach. I may have lost followers or clients as a result, but I’m only showing and speaking about the realities of animal agriculture and the threat it poses to life on Earth.  If people can’t handle the truth they can look away or keep scrolling until they find a photo of a pretty flower! 


What’s alarming is that, given the current circumstances and our awareness of how pandemics are almost certainly going to become more prevalent (and even more deadly) due to zoonotic spillover, there is still reluctance to engage with these issues that are making the future increasingly uncertain for our children.

Linda: Which campaigns have you been particularly involved in?


Cleve: I can’t compare myself to activists who spend a significant amount of their free-time campaigning for animals, but in the past I’ve been involved with raising awareness at some local slaughterhouses, particularly a chicken slaughterhouse near the Olympic Park in Stratford.  People often say they’re cutting down on red meat and eating more chicken.  If only they would take a minute to see the conditions these animals live in and how they meet their end, it’s the stuff of nightmares.  I don’t care what colour that animal’s flesh is, it still belongs to a sentient being that wants to live. 


The campaign to rid the world of fur is ongoing.  We banned fur farms in the UK back in 2000 but so much is still being imported and it’s depressing to see so much of it still being used as accessories such as fur trims and pom-poms. 


These days I’m trying to focus of encouraging horticultural organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society and Kew to shift to plant-based menus at their establishments and events.  People are beginning to understand the negative effect that animal farming has on the environment, so sometimes it’s easier to focus on that than the moral argument against hurting animals unnecessarily. 


There’s also the Vegan Land Movement, a great form of crowd-funded activism.  Supporters help buy back land from the dairy industry for rewilding.  It’s in its infancy but has already purchased two plots in Somerset and looking to buy a third.  This is a fantastic way of giving land back to nature. Find out more from their website. 


Linda: Are there some areas where you’ve already seen change for the better?


Cleve: Well, for years the RHS hasn't engaged with me on the subject of plant-based catering, probably because I was too noisy and bombarded them with so many facts and figures that they clearly thought I’d lost the plot!  I’m delighted to say that dialogue has been resumed and it’s very positive, so we’ll see what comes of that and I’ll keep you posted. 


Elsewhere there's been a gradual shift towards plant-based food in supermarkets and other outlets, so the stigma attached to being vegan is quickly being eroded.  If you’d told me five years ago that I would be eating a vegan pie (and a good one at that) before a game at Brentford Football Club I’d never have believed you.


Linda: Could you tell us about the work you’re doing with primary school children on your allotment, and what you hope they will take from it?


Cleve: Yes, Christ Church CE Primary School is Battersea are pioneers in outdoor learning.  They have access to a walled garden near the school and I helped them with a veg plot within the school grounds.  The gardens are used for all lessons in the curriculum - the children learn about the natural world and gardening from their first day at school.  Most importantly they're taught about the importance of other life forms and that they shouldn't be harmed unnecessarily. Pre-COVID, a small group would visit the allotment each year to see how we garden veganically, but that’s been put on hold for now. 


There are also plans to hold cookery events at the school where children, parents and staff can learn how to cook fresh, organic, healthy and affordable food. I’m looking forward to seeing that work and picking up a few recipes.

Linda: With The Garden of Vegan, was your aim to reach people whose main interest is gardening?


Cleve: Indeed, the intention is to inspire gardeners to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. I realised that vegans and gardeners share the same USP … plants. As gardeners we all love plants. We love growing them and eating them, so if a plant-based diet can help us mitigate climate change, reduce the chances of future pandemics, feed an ever-growing population and relieve the pressure on the NHS by keeping us healthy, it’s a win-win situation on so many levels.


Linda: It seems that your allotment and the community there are very important to you – perhaps as a sanctuary, and as a contrast to the gardens you design for others? 


Cleve: Yes, our garden at home is small so the allotment is very precious to us and really did live up to its sanctuary status during the lockdowns.  Of course, there’s an element of design and intervention, but you’re right  - it does feel like a complete antithesis to the gardens I design, especially with our ‘relaxed’ approach letting nature have more of a say.  There’s a shady area under trees at the back, part of which we try not to disturb - just looking at it brings a sense of calm and fascination.  Having said that, nature has a way of taking back much more quickly than you think, so if we want the plot to be productive it has to be managed. If we wanted to be self-sufficient we’d have to be a lot more organised and efficient with our given space. 

Linda: What changes would you most like to see in the next ten years to the ways we treat animals? 


Cleve: Too many to mention!  Certainly a ban on hunting in the UK and the import of fur would be a good start, and with the way the hunting fraternity has shot itself in the foot lately it’s very much a possibility.  It would also be great to see the end of animal testing and the import of fur.


Getting Oxfordshire County Council to acknowledge the damage that animal agriculture is doing to the climate and the environment and shifting to plant-based food* was a landmark achievement that's got to happen on a broader scale if we want a real chance of providing a more secure and stable future for the next generation.  At the very least schools and hospitals should ditch animal products for the nation’s health and the health of our children.


Educating children about the value of life (from the ant to the elephant), the truth about how animals are farmed and the interconnectedness of all life forms will help future generations to understand and accept that their survival and the health of the planet depends on how we treat and respect others.  In the meantime we have to get politicians to accept that plant-based systems will give us the best chance of repairing some of the harm we’ve caused and figure out a way of helping farmers transition away from animal farming.  I’m not optimistic that this will happen within a decade but I think there will be a substantial increase in the number of vegans in the UK.


*This refers to the Feed Our Future campaign which is urging councils nationwide to commit to plant-based catering.

Killed at Newfields Abbatoir, December 2017: portrait by Christine Eatwell

Linda: Anyone involved in animal activism will inevitably come across gut-wrenching images of horrible cruelty. How do you strike a balance between keeping yourself motivated on the one hand, and on the other, becoming so sickened at the scale of brutality that you feel like giving up?

Cleve: Yes, the reality and scale of the oppression, violence and exploitation is beyond anything we can imagine - if you dwell on it too much it can break you. I limit the amount I look at these days, but use it to keep the fire stoked and help me remember that while using levers such as the environment and health to persuade people to go vegan, the main reason is to put an end to the unnecessary harm and suffering we cause to sentient beings.


Linda: Your wife Christine’s sketches of animals destined for slaughter were an excellent (but of course very sad) addition to The Garden of Vegan.  Do you plan to work on another book project together?


Cleve:  I don’t think so - mostly because I’m such a slow writer!  I wouldn’t mind updating The Garden of Vegan at some point, as it would be great to highlight the link between intensive animal farming and pandemics.  It'll never be a best-seller (a pity, as all my profit goes to animal sanctuaries and vegan organisations) but perhaps gardeners will find it useful as more of them make the connection.

Cleve's famous onion bhajis at an open day at Bushy Park Allotments - a fundraiser for the Disasters Emergency Committee's Nepal Earthquake Appeal. He made more than 600 bhajis that day, helping towards a total of £1100 raised and donated.

Linda: What advice would you give to any young person who wants to be a campaigner for animals? 


Cleve: I think be flexible to begin with.  Join some social media groups and maybe go to a few demos, vigils or outreach events to get a feel for the different types of activism.  There is no one right or wrong way, as everyone is different and the public responds in different ways too.  What might turn someone off might make another go vegan in a heartbeat. 


Of course it’s good to get out of your comfort zone from time to time but if you can apply some of your activism to your work or your interests (art, media, cuisine, etc) the more effective and satisfying your activism will be.

Linda: Finally – the Three Men Went to Mow sketches you’ve been performing with Joe Swift and James Alexander-Sinclair are very entertaining – I especially like the clever way of meeting the lockdown challenge in Digging a Hole! How did they start, and are you planning more of them? 


Cleve:  I can’t remember whether James or Joe came up with the idea first.  They’re both luvvies and very much at home in front of a lens whereas I tend to cringe in front of it.  Clearly though, I’m easily led!  My favourites are the ones with Alan Titchmarsh at Chelsea, another doing a bake-off at Mary Berry’s house and The Good the Bad and the Ugly spoof with Penny Snell, ex-Chair of the National Garden Scheme.


They take a fair bit of time to put together so once I started spending more time doing animal activism it sort of fizzled out, but as you mentioned, we did one for Horatio’s Garden during lockdown, so who knows what the future holds?  Ideally we could do a Clockwork Orange spoof where they go vegan after being tied up and forced  to watch the films Earthlings, Dominion and Land of Hope and Glory back to back - in fact, that’s such a good idea I'm  going to get some eye clamps fabricated just as soon as possible!

Linda: Thank you very much, Cleve, for answering my questions, and for everything you do to raise awareness of how we treat animals and how we could do far better! Let's hope that the coming year will see more steps forward. 


The Garden of Vegan is published by Pimpernel and is available from bookshops including those at RHS gardens, or you can order it here from 

Watch THREE MEN WENT TO MOW: the National Gardens scheme, in which Cleve, James and Joe attempt to make cakes to impress Mary Berry ...

Books of the Year!

Although some of these titles were published this year, others are older - these are my top choices from the books I've read in 2021.


Several of these have featured on Writers Review, so I've provided links to more detailed reviews there. Follow us for a great new reading recommendation every Monday, all by authors or independent booksellers.


Three of these were Reading Group choices: one my own (The Underground Railroad); two, which I was glad to read, by other members of the group.


So here they are. Jessie Greengrass's The High House imagines what happens if the support systems we rely on are suddenly eliminated by climate catastrophe. This isn't science fiction - it's all too believable. It's currently shortlisted for the Costa Novel prize, to be awarded next month. (Read my full review here.)


Rachel Joyce's Miss Benson's Beetle  is the story of two unlikely female companions who travel to a remote island in search of a golden beetle - told with all Rachel Joyce's customary warmth, insight and affection. (Read my full review here.)


Francis Spufford's Light Perpetual was longlisted for the Booker, and I was disappointed it wasn't shortlisted. It begins with the deaths of five children in a wartime bombing, then imagines their lives as they might have been lived. Virtuoso writing makes this a dazzling read.


I admired the Booker winner just as much - The Promise by Damon Galgut. It's structured around four funerals (no wedding) of members of a wealthy family in South Africa. As in Francis Spufford's book, we leap forward by decades, marking changes in government, leadership and the end of apartheid. A unique narrative stance adds humour and playfulness to what would otherwise be a bleak narrative.


In The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead imagines that the metaphorical escape route for slaves in the southern states to reach freedom in the north is an actual railway (given steampunk treatment in the TV dramatisation). This gives momentum and great originality to a harrowing story of suffering, bravery and determination. 


Finally, another Booker winner: Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other, which with great energy follows the lives of twelve women and girls, all but one of them black, giving insights into attitudes, opportunities and changing perceptions. It's written as a kind of prose poem that tumbles down the page - this is surprisingly easy to get used to, and feels absolutely right for the distinctive voices Evaristo conjures. (Read Celia Rees' piece on Writers Review here.)


Matt Haig's The Midnight Library makes intriguing use of its premise - that our lives could branch off in various directions and that it's possible to follow any of those shoots, as Nora discovers when suicidal. With a nod to It's a Wonderful Life, it's a perfect read for this time of year, when we're all likely to be thinking of what has and hasn't happened and how things could have worked out differently. (Read Julia Jarman's review here.)


Finally: my friend and co-host of Writers Review, Adele Geras, has written Dangerous Women under the pseudonym Hope Adams. It's the story of a voyage of convict women, a murder mystery, and also a tale of possible new beginnings - all stitched together in a beautiful quilt made collectively by the women. (Read a Q&A with Adele / Hope Adams here.)



I listened to the audio version of How the World Thinksread very engagingly by Julian Baggini himself. I shall certainly have to listen or read again - there is so much to take in, in this great global overview of philosophy, tradition and belief.


In The Great Derangement, published in 2016, Amitav Ghosh wonders why climate change features so rarely in fiction - or, when it does, it's sidelined into the genre categories of scifi or fantasy. This is of course changing (see The High House above, but still it's a fascinating exploration of how we blinker ourselves to warnings of catastrophe. (Read Jane Rogers' review here.)


No one knows and loves C S Lewis's Narnia stories better than Katherine Langrish. In From Spare Oom to War Drobe she revisits the stories with her nine-year-old self, combining the rapture she felt as a child with the immense knowledge she has since acquired of fairy and folk tales. Critical where needed, but also defending Lewis against charges of misogyny, she will I'm sure send many adult readers back to Narnia to rediscover the delights of our first encounters and consider them afresh. (See Lesli Wilson's piece on Writers Review here.)

Children's Books

I read several of Gill Lewis's books before interviewing her for the blog (see below) and would highly recommend all of them. This, her latest, has been described as a modern Black Beauty for dogs. We accompany Pup as he adapts to life as a street dog. On the way, without being at all heavy-handed, Gill Lewis focuses on various welfare issues: puppy-farming, abandoning of pets and the horrible cruelty of dog-fighting among them.


The Song that Sings Us by Nicola Davies is a highly-charged adventure story with a deep love of the natural world at its heart. Ruthless Automators seek to control nature for power and profit, opposed by Listeners who are in tune with living creatures, and by a Gaia-like network of support. It's written with the knowledge of a zoologist combined with the eye and ear of a poet. My full review is below.


Author and illustrator Pam Smy has a unique combination of talents, used to the full in The Hideaway, where text and image combine to tell a compelling, haunting tale. Billy seeks refuge in a graveyard, running from domestic abuse; the story is also his mother's, and her need for help. It's traditional in feel but sharply relevant too.


Finally, James Mayhew's Once Upon a Tune is quite irresistible  It tells the stories of William Tell, the Swan of Tuonela, The Sorceror's Apprentice and others, with richly detailed illustrations collaged from fragments of musical scores and patterned papers. Colours, textures and shapes give each story its individual feel. Beautifully produced, it's a gorgeous book that must have been under many Christmas trees this week.




A Good News Round-up!

For anyone who campaigns for animals - or for anything else - progress can seem frustratingly slow. But several recent successes show that protesting does sometimes work, and that animal suffering will be reduced as a result. 


Here are some changes for the better:

Stop Ecocide Law aims to make ecocide - destruction of a habit - an international crime, regarded with the same seriousness as genocide, terrorism and other crimes against humanity.


This month the Belgian Parliament has adopted the legal resolution. It's to be hoped that other countries will follow.


What can you do? Follow Stop Ecocide to learn more. Join, to become an Earth Protector. Write to your MP asking the UK government to adopt the resolution.

Looking for easy ways to reduce your environmental impact? Greenpeace has produced this free guide, listing 101 ways you can change your habits to live more sustainably. Great for New Year resolutions!


What can you do? Download the free guide. Give yourself some targets - you probably can't do all 101 of the things suggested, but probably you are doing some of them already and can set yourself some new challenges. Find it here, and follow Greenpeace for news of their campaigns and actions.

Good news for octopuses, squid and lobsters - they are at last to be recognised as sentient beings. It must be recognised that they can feel pain, and must be treated as animals rather than objects. This will have implications for how they are kept, transported and killed. Compassion in World Farming has campaigned against octopus farms, claiming that confined conditions are entirely unsuitable for these intelligent creatures.


What can you do? Support and follow Compassion in World Farming - they do such valuable work to improve conditions for farm animals worldwide. 



The National Trust, following a vote by its members, will no longer issue licenses to foxhound packs on its land. Fox-hunting is already illegal, but 'trailhunting' is still allowed by law. However, hunts all over the country continue to flout this rule, with foxes killed every week during the hunting season. At least they won't be able to do it on National Trust land any more, and other land-owners are likely to follow.


Cheshire West and Chester Council is also banning trailhunting on its land, and there are campaigns to persuade other councils to do the same. 


What can you do? If you live in a country area where fox-hunting takes place, write to your council and ask them to ban it on the land they own. Follow, support or join the RSPCA,  the League Against Cruel Sports or Keep the Ban.

The European Union plans to phase out animal testing in laboratories. The vote comes after a study found 72% of EU citizens support bringing an end to the cruel practices of testing on animals. 

In addition to public support, cross-party members of the European Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority (667-4) in favour of “a transition from animal testing to ethical and effective alternatives.”


What can you do? Make sure that your cosmetics, shampoo, deodorant etc. and household products haven't been tested on animals by looking for the Leaping Bunny logo which guarantees that they are cruelty-free. 

Travel company Expedia has said that it will no longer sell tickets for attractions with captive cetaceans (aquatic mammals like dolphins and orcas). “We recently adjusted our animal welfare policy. As a result, attractions and activities that involve performances by or interactions with dolphins and other cetaceans will no longer be available on our sites.” This is excellent news - I hope other travel companies will follow.


What can you do? Follow and support campaigning organisations like the Marine Conservation Society. When on holiday, never visit Seaworld or any other 'attraction' that features captive dolphins or orcas.

Several fashion brands and companies have now said that they will stop using angora wool. Why? Because, although angora is a lovely soft fleece used for sweaters, scarves etc., it's cruelly produced - angora rabbits spend their whole lives in cages and their fur is roughly shorn or ripped from their bodies, many times during their lifetime. The Armani, Gucci, Burberry and Selfridges are among fashion houses that already don't use angora or are phasing it out, and others are sure to follow.


What can you do? Don't buy knitwear that contains angora. Support PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

And - read my book! There are many more suggestions there of ways to avoid cruelty and make kinder choices. 


What can you do? Buy a copy from your local bookshop or from, or order one from your library!

Review: The Song that Sings Us by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Jackie Morris

“When animals talk, it’s time humans listened.”


This beautiful book is the work of an ideal partnership – Nicola Davies, author of many picture and information books drawing on her zoology background and love of the natural world, and Jackie Morris, Greenaway-winning illustrator of The Lost Words among many other titles. Although Nicola Davies is best known for her picture books, she returns to longer fiction in this epic adventure with a strong environmental theme.


Set in an alternative world, the story centres on an issue that’s all too relevant to our own: the destruction of the natural world by those who readily sacrifice its beauty, diversity and wildness for power and wealth. The ruthless Automators aim to drive all citizens into cities, away from land, rivers, and farms, with the promise that consistency of life will be guaranteed, away from the vagaries of nature. “They (the people) must be made to understand that animals and plants are resources to be owned and used; that they have no rights. The Listeners and their filthy hocus-pocus stand in the way of progress.” This dislike of animal life is so great that those who are Listeners – able to tune in to animal minds and communicate with them – can be denounced, imprisoned, and brainwashed.


The Automators fail to realise the strength of a Gaia-like network in which all living creatures communicate through song and thought transference. Central to this are Harlon, Ash and Xeno and their mother Toren, linked to the resistance movement Green Thorn; the family lives peacefully on a mountainside until Automators burst in, setting fire to their home. Told by Toren to snowboard to safety, the three siblings become separated, each at some point in the story captured by the Automators. Their quest is to seek a remote island where they believe golden lines connect the entire living world. It’s this island the Automators plan to destroy with a quasi-nuclear weapon, and here all the main characters converge.


Both Ash and Xeno are Listeners, Xeno with an affinity with birds: “It fills her up: the shape of wind, the space between one wingbeat and the next, the wisdom of the flock … Eggs in nests of cliffs and trees, white in dark burrows, blue like the eye of the sky or mottle-blotched like captured bits of cloud.” Doada, the conflicted leader of the Automators, thinks his battle is won when Xeno is captured; but he underestimates the power and resilience of creatures of all kinds.


The Song That Sings Us is a captivating eco-fable with enough danger and action to please lovers of action adventure but also with the lyricism and wonder that comes from Nicola Davies’ deep love of the natural world; her writing often combines a zoologist’s knowledge with a poet’s eye and ear. Jackie Morris’s illustrations, in her unmistakable style, are the perfect match.


(This review was written for Armadillo magazine.)



Animal Advocate interview: author Gill Lewis

I'm hoping to make this a regular feature here - interviewing people who campaign for animals in a range of ways. I'm delighted that Gill Lewis has kindly agreed to be my first guest.


Gill is a wonderful writer for young readers, many of her stories drawing on her experience as a vet and her travels to see wildlife in many countries. From her first novel, Sky Hawk, to her most recent, A Street Dog Named Pup, her books are thoroughly absorbing. There is always an animal ingredient, ranging from outrage at the poisoning of golden eagles on a shooting estate and the anxiety of following a tracked osprey on her flight to Africa and back, to the perils faced by the abandoned Pup on the London streets and the dependence of an exiled woman on her collection of birds. There's also a sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world and its inhabitants. The humans in Gill's stories are equally important, with sympathetic portrayals of Eritrean refugees in The Closest Thing to Flying, the struggles of Scarlet to keep her family together against all odds in The Scarlet Ibis, and many more.


A Street Dog Named Pup  is already on my Books of the Year list! I haven't read all her books, but after reading several I know that she's an author you can depend on for a gripping story that will thoroughly involve you in her characters' worlds and the dilemmas they face.


Here she answers my questions about her writing and her campaigning for animals.

L: For A Street Dog Named Pup, did you consciously have Black Beauty as your model – I mean in terms of the episodic structure and the rise and fall of Pup’s fortunes depending on the people he comes into contact with?


G: I didn’t consciously have Black Beauty as a model for the story, although I did want the story to span the lifetime of Pup. That isn’t to say my subconscious might have been working very hard at this! I loved Black Beauty as a child, and as an adult I researched Anna Sewell for an essay about anthropomorphism and discovered that her story helped raise awareness about the welfare of horses. 


L: Through the various dogs Pup meets in the Railway Den, you introduce a range of topics of concern without being at all heavy-handed: puppy-farming, dog-fighting, ear-cropping, irresponsible pet-owning, ‘handbag dogs’. What would you like young readers to take from the book?



G: Ultimately, the story is one about the unique bond that we can have with dogs, about loyalty and trust and dogs’ unconditional love.  I hope the story enables young readers to see the world through dogs’ eyes, and to understand their physical and emotional needs. I would love young readers to understand the concerns of canine welfare and in doing so raise awareness of responsible dog ownership. 

L: I know that your work as a vet has made you particularly aware of the problems for dogs selectively bred to have flat faces (brachycephalic breeds such as pugs, bulldogs and French bulldogs like Frenchi in Street Dog) – these dogs often have serious breathing difficulties. Yet those breeds seem increasingly popular. Do you blame fashion for that – and if so, what can be done to discourage the trend?



G: The rise in brachycephalic breeds as pets and their associated health problems is the biggest companion animal welfare problem at the moment. Their popularity is driven by their cute face, which has much resemblance to a human baby – button nose and big eyes. Celebrities owning these dogs have increased the demand for them. But the grim reality for these dogs is that they are literally dying to breathe. They have shortened noses but have excess skin around their face and also excess soft tissue inside the nose and throat that obstructs breathing and eating. Many owners don’t recognise the signs of disease; such as excessive snoring, persistent tiredness and holding a toy in their mouth whilst sleeping to keep the airway open. Indeed, many of these signs of disease are seen as endearing. Dog food companies are changing the shape of the dog biscuit, so these dogs do not choke on their food whilst swallowing. We should be changing the shape of the dog, not the shape of the food. The British Veterinary Association runs a campaign to prevent the use of brachycephalic breeds in advertising. I believe we need to raise this awareness across society to enable children and adults to make informed choices. The pug breed is very commonly portrayed in children’s books, for the very reason that it is so childlike, but I believe publishers have duty to follow the British Veterinary Association guidelines and not use these breeds in children’s literature.  I did pose the question on Twitter and was met with tumbleweed silence from the publishing world. Maybe no one from publishing noticed, or maybe pugs are just too marketable as a money-spinner.  I would defy anyone to spend a day at a referral clinic for Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome and not change their mind. 

L: The dog-fighting scenes in A Street Dog Named Pup are particularly harrowing (even for someone of my age who already knows how cruel it is!)  Did you ever come into contact with victims of dog-fighting during your time as a vet? Did you find those scenes hard to write?



G: These scenes were really hard to write. As a vet I never came into contact with the victims of dog fights, because the people who run dog fighting would never consider taking a dog to the vet. However, I did speak to a friend who works in the police to find out about the criminal gangs who keep and breed dogs for fighting. I didn’t think I could be easily shocked but some of the cruelty is beyond belief. 

L: How can people (even, or especially, those who love animals) be discouraged from supporting tourist attractions such as dolphinariums, roadside zoos where visitors can pose with tiger cubs, and the like?



G: I remember when I was young, I was at Blackpool with a friend and we wanted to see the dolphin show. As an animal-mad child, I wanted to be up close and personal with such a charismatic creature. I’d watched Flipper on TV and harboured secret thoughts of swimming with dolphins. So, we paid to see the show. So I understand why people want tiger experiences, or visits to dolphinariums. It’s often a chance to see these incredible creatures close up and be in awe of them. But I remember that trip to Blackpool, and the reality of watching a dolphin in a tiny pool, going round and round and round. It had sores on its skin and it looked visibly depressed. My friend and I felt very sorry for it. I think if there had been a campaign at the time raising awareness about the dolphin, that we would not have paid our money and watched the show. Raising awareness is key, to show the mental and physical suffering and the impact on the environment of animals poached from the wild. Social media can help spread the work and raising awareness on some travel tourist sites like Trip Advisor can have a big impact. 

L:  When you began to write fiction, did you immediately see it as a way into campaigning with young people? Or has your work with Hen Harrier Day, Wild Justice and other organisations grown out of the writing, as people came to know and appreciate your books?


G:  When I started writing, I followed the advice about write what you love, and for me that was writing about animals and wild places and our human connection with them. My first book was Sky Hawk,, a story about an osprey connecting children in different countries. I didn’t intentionally start writing as a way into campaigning, but as my writing journey progressed, and I spoke with many people about concerns of the planet, I found my own voice to speak about these things. I feel privileged to know many other creatives: Jackie Morris, Nicola Davies, Lauren St John, Dara McAnulty and Piers Torday, who use art and story to raise awareness and empower others to make a difference too.



My involvement with Hen Harrier Action and Wild Justice is to be another voice calling for change. The UN has declared the next decade as the one of rewilding. We have to change our upland land use from   monoculture managed heather to a restored landscape of many habitats. 

L: Your books are critical of hunting and shooting, and the management of shooting estates that so often involves the trapping or poisoning of birds of prey, such as eagles and hen harriers. I liked your inclusion in Pup of Reynard, a foxhound who narrowly escaped being shot because he wouldn’t hunt foxes so was no use to the pack – one aspect of fox-hunting we don’t hear much about. Have you had any criticism from supporters of these ‘sports’?


G:  I have had criticism from the driven grouse shooting community, but I have researched this area so thoroughly from both sides of the debate that I can counter their arguments with facts and science. Most of the debate has been civil, although there are some abusive keyboard warriors out there who often seem to take umbrage, especially when a woman has something to say.


Some of the criticism has been from a minority of conservationists who feel some of my comments are outspoken about driven grouse shooting. I firmly believe that driven grouse shooting needs to be banned because it is underpinned by wildlife crime and by degradation of vast landscapes to produce heather for grouse production. We have seen many working examples where rewilding and restoring these landscapes is reversing biodiversity loss, mitigating climate change and boosting rural economies. However, for too long, a softly, softly approach has been taken by some in conservation seeking compromise and middle ground with some landowners, thus perpetuating driven grouse shooting. Some of this appeasement is preventing progress towards the wild restoration we urgently need. With some debates, especially those concerning human or environmental rights, there is no middle ground, although I believe that finding a way forward is to be able to show that everyone can benefit from change. Banning driven grouse shooting and restoring the landscapes will create more rural jobs with long term security for people and the wild.


L: You seem to have a special affinity with birds of prey. Were these birds and their habitats a particular love of yours before you began writing fiction?


G: When I was a child, I desperately hoped a golden eagle would land in my suburban garden. Of course, one never did, but I have always loved the elemental ferocity of birds of prey. Where I live in Somerset, we see many buzzards, but each time still fills me we awe, listening to their wild cry, reminding us that we are all part wild. 

L:  Did you always write stories, and / or want to be a writer, while you were training and working as a vet?


G: I loved writing stories as a child, but my handwriting and spelling were pretty awful and so I never considered being an author. However, when my children came along, I took them to the library and fell in love with books again. I saw the powerful impact they had on my own children. I loved making up stories to tell them at bedtime or on long car journeys and re-ignited my creative side.


L:  Have you any plans to write a non-fiction book about animals and the environment?



G: I would love to and have several ideas to pursue. If someone could find a way of expanding time, that would be great as there are not enough hours in the day! 

L:  As far as I’m aware, The Closest Thing to Flying is your only novel so far to be set partly in the past. Did you enjoy using a historical setting, and will you be tempted to do so again?


G:  I really enjoyed writing a historical setting. However, it meant much research into a time and era I knew little about. The Closest Thing to Flying is in part set in 1891 when women begin to campaign against the use of feathers in fashion. These women were the founders of the RSPB, yet they are only just being recognised now. I found it fascinating to see how ideas and attitudes have changed. I expected these progressive women to be part of the suffragette movement, but in fact some were vehemently anti-suffrage. I think reading and writing historical pieces helps us to revaluate our own belief and opinions. I wonder if they would have changed their opinions on suffrage with the benefit of hindsight. I would love to write a historical piece again and think it might be fun to go way, way back when Britain was joined to Europe by a land bridge.  



I have toyed with the idea of writing an imagined future story - a ‘sliding doors’ story to continue Sky Dancer:  one future where Minty, the aristocratic daughter of Henry Knight, the moor owner, decides to rewild the estate, and the other future where her brother continues driven grouse shooting. Or maybe there is the third option in the story where the community buys out the land and rewilds it, as has happened with the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve in Scotland.


L:  Your books are deservedly popular with readers, and I’m sure they change lives and attitudes. What are some of the best responses you’ve had from young readers?


G:  Hearing from readers is always a huge privilege. I’ve been particularly touched by young people who have had cake sales raising money from moon bears to ospreys or writing to MPs about the state of the seas. I have had emails from young people who have gone onto study ecology and marine science from reading by books when they were younger. One letter really moved me to read that because I had written from the perspective of a child with a parent with mental illness, they felt less alone knowing other children lived with that too. 


L:  And you’re an illustrator too! I loved the cameo portraits of all the dogs in A Street Dog Named Pup. Is this something you’d like to build on, with more illustrated books or even a picture book? 


G:  I really enjoyed illustrating Pup’s story. Drawing is always essential to my first drafts to find the characters and landscapes. I’m a very visual writer and have to see the story unfold in my head to write it. I’d love to do more illustration, and also find time to experiment with different mediums.

L:  What do you find most upsetting in the ways humans treat animals today? And what gives you the most hope for a better future?


G:  Turning a blind eye perpetuates many harmful practices. For example, choosing the ‘cute’ face of a dog over the potential life-threatening reality of a severely shortened muzzle, or to the fate of foxhounds that are no longer deemed ‘fit for purpose.’ Many people know that farmed salmon are kept in crowded sea cages, and yet may not pay any mind to the physical suffering and diseases of these fish.


We are more aware and open about addressing mental health issues in humans, but I think we should be more aware of animals as sentient beings. If animals are denied any of the five freedoms, they are prone to suffering mental distress. When someone buys a pup on a whim, and rehomes it a few months later they have failed to see the mental anguish of the pup. Watching dolphins perform for entertainment in small tanks is turning a blind eye to the mental and physical torture of captivity.



Hope for the future comes from knowing that we have many in the younger generation who are more engaged with welfare and environmental issues. More people are changing away from eating animal flesh and animal products to a wholly plant-based diet, hence reducing our reliance on the livestock industry.  

L:  Are you working on a new book now, and if so can you tell us a little about it?


G: I have just finished a book on beavers for Barrington Stoke.  Beavers are landscape engineers and change rivers, creating wetlands, improving water quality, increasing fish-stocks and reducing flooding.   The story is about a girl who realises that if a river can change its course, then she can change her life too.


The book I’m writing at the moment is very different. I think last year I felt a sort of ecological grief and after 10 years of writing conservation-based stories, I felt so despondent with the state of the planet and so I’m writing a sort of wild fantasy about rats – and these rats wear clothes! However, there are many parallels to human greed. I’m having a lot of fun writing it.


L:  Thank you, Gill - we'll look forward to those!



Find out more about Gill Lewis’s books and work, and also about the background to her stories and the various campaigns she supports, on her website:

Recent talks and events:

Recent talks and events:

Find me here in the Reading Corner - talking to the excellent Nikki Gamble of Just Imagine about my new book, about attitudes to animals and what one person can do to avoid cruelty and reduce carbon emissions.

I was delighted to take part in the YALC conference, talking to the excellent Gill Lewis - author of such great books as Sky Dancer, Scarlet Ibis, Eagle Warriors and more recently A Street Dog Named Pup (which is already one of my Books of the Year). Here we talk about the issues we raise in our books, how animal awareness can become part of everyday life and the small or larger changes everyone can make to improve conditions for animals. You can listen to our conversation here, on YouTube.