It seems to me being a vegetarian requires possession of a good sense of humor. The decision to stray from the meat-and-potato traditions of my family certainly exposed me to more than my fair share of ribbing and ridicule, and I don't think I would have handled those ordeals so well if I didn't go through them with a smile. Perhaps this explains how The Little Veal Cutlet that Couldn't so easily drew me in.
Written by Redwood Hostel manager Ryan Forsythe and poignantly illustrated by Cassie Hart, the book seems a children's tale in appearance, script and rhyme. However, parents and buyers beware, for as Forsythe himself notes, "it's a children's book that's decidedly not for children." In fact, the tragic tale of the sad fate of Betsy the cow and her son Jake (spoiler alert: both become dinner) deals with issues -- factory farming, exploitation and greed -- not easily digested by many parents or, for that matter, this country's population in general.
The strength of the book is found in its ironic treatment of morals and themes originally presented in Watty Piper's popular The Little Engine that Could. And in targeting this classic, Forsythe and Hart join fine company, as both Shel Silverstein and Lemony Snickett have alluded to the trials of Piper's tireless train. What distinguishes this effort is Forsythe's ability to stand the lauded tale completely on its head and do so with timely and urgent relevance. Whereas Little Engine's resounding mantra of "I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can" is indicative of the self-determination prescribed by the American Dream, little Jake's investment in the same belief ultimately leads to his unfortunate end and reflects the lived realities of a society mired in disillusion, corruption and shattered dreams.
For some the dark humor presented in the book will seem obnoxious and a bit self-indulgent. I would like to propose, however, that this humor has universal appeal and potentially serves as a point from which dialog around issues of vegetarianism and animal welfare can begin. Clearly, with only about 3 percent of citizens in this country embracing vegetarianism, the years of moral, ethical and (more recently) intellectual appeals have fallen short of proponents' utopian goals. Maybe it's humor, as morbid as it can sometimes appear, that provides a common ground for different sides to come together, not only to share a laugh but to also engage in productive conversations about environment, sustainability and fair business practices.
After all, if we are to put any stock in the vision of this country's new leadership, realizing and redefining the American Dream begins with thinking we can.