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Humane Education and Tweens' Emerging Views of Animals

Zoe Weil's new book tells a wonderful story that can help humans and nonhumans.

Ahmed ツ/Pexels.
Source: Ahmed ツ/Pexels.

Zoe Weil is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education. Her newest book for tweens is called Claude & Medea: The Hellburn Dogs, a Moonbeam Gold Medal winner for juvenile fiction, highlights the importance of education for youngsters and the significance that teachers can have on the development of their moral compass.

There are so many things to love about this book: the characters, the suspense, the courage and compassion of the protagonists, and the fact that kids won’t be able to put the book down. At a time when young people feel growing anxiety about the problems in the world, Claude and Medea demonstrate the power of making a difference, and their strange substitute teacher demonstrates the power of education to ignite both learning and action. Here's what Zoe had to say about her landmark book.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Claude & Medea?

Zoe Weil: At an animal rights conference I attended in 2006, Martin Rowe, the former publisher at Lantern Books mentioned to me that he was thinking about publishing children’s books. On my way home from the conference, two protagonists and the full plot for the first book in a tween series came to me in a flash. By the time I got to my house, I’d written the whole book in my head. Two weeks later, I had a draft of Claude & Medea. Of all the books I’ve written this was by far the most fun to write.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

ZW: I’m a humane educator, someone who teaches about the interconnected issues of animal protection, human rights, and environmental sustainability. The book begins when a quirky substitute teacher named Ms. Rattlebee (who is really a humane educator) spends a week with a group of seventh graders. She offers them thought-provoking and life-changing humane education activities and lessons—ones that I’ve done with thousands of kids myself.

These activities spur two of the students, Claude and Medea, to become clandestine activists. The book then turns into an adventure mystery, replete with requisite dangers and heroism.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

ZW: The book is written for tweens—10-13 year-olds—and my great hope is that it will be adopted by language arts teachers for their classrooms. I’d be thrilled if it’s made into a movie, too!

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

ZW: I pack a lot of topics into the beginning of the book because Ms. Rattlebee introduces the students to many issues. She begins by pretending to be an alien visiting Earth to learn how to behave on our planet. Among other questions she asks, her alien persona queries the students about how one is supposed to treat animals. This leads to the kids becoming aware of the inconsistencies between what we profess to believe and how we act. In other words, the kids realize that they treat some animals with care and kindness while causing others to suffer.

The next day, she introduces the students to modern-day slavery, a problem many people think has long-since been solved, but which currently impacts tens of millions of children and adults around the globe. The following morning, the students find Ms. Rattlebee standing on a desk with a garbage bag that she dumps onto the floor. It’s full of plastic trash and represents the items found inside of a dead whale beached in North Carolina. Then she engages the students in a conversation about how we could have prevented the whale’s death and so much trash in our oceans.

On the last day she gives the students a writing prompt. She tells them that Mahatma Gandhi was once asked by a reporter, “What is your message?” Gandhi had taken a vow of silence that day, so he simply jotted down on a piece of paper, “My life is my message.” Ms. Rattlebee tells the students that this is true for all of us. Each of our lives is our message. Then she asks the students to write a letter to themselves about what they want their message to be, which she promises to mail to them one day.

By the end of the week, and inspired by Ms. Rattlebee, the soon-to-be heroes, Claude and Medea, are ready to make a difference in the world. When he learns about dog thefts happening in his neighborhood, Claude insists this is the problem they should solve. But Claude is the son of famous parents. His mom is a U.S. Senator, and his dad is a national news anchor. He can’t get into trouble. Meanwhile, Medea has even more at stake. She goes to their fancy private school on a scholarship and can’t risk doing anything wrong.

Of course, this being fiction, the duo is ultimately undeterred, and they embark on a dangerous adventure, solving the mystery of the dog thefts and rescuing the dogs from an evil researcher. They go on to form a group they call the solutionary squad to solve problems where they find them. As you can probably tell, I’m setting the stage for the next books in the series.

To be clear, my message is not that kids should risk their lives to make a difference; rather that there are lots of problems in the world—animal cruelty being one of them—and kids can strive to right wrongs. They can also make different personal choices, like becoming vegetarian, a choice Claude makes after he realizes he wouldn’t eat his dog so why would he eat a pig, cow, or chicken.

My description might make the book sound didactic, but it’s not. It’s an adventure story. Kids have described it to me as a book they can’t put down. I wanted to write a page-turner that would inspire, uplift, and motivate tweens and give them heroes they could relate to and emulate, minus the risk-taking of course. And who doesn’t love a good story about dogs?

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the emotional lives of animals they'll treat them with more respect and dignity?

ZW: That’s the take-home message of Claude & Medea. There’s a rat in the story, too, whom Claude finds in the laboratory where the stolen dogs are being experimented on. Does Claude save the rat? I’ll let reader find out. I’d like to leave you with some suspense.


In conversation with Zoe Weil, author of Nautilus Silver Medal winner, Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life, The Power and Promise of Humane Education, Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times and The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries. She has also written numerous articles and book chapters on humane education and humane and sustainable living. Zoe speaks internationally about creating a more just and sustainable world through education. She also has a Psychology Today blog titled Becoming a Solutionary.

Kids & animals, Marc Bekoff, Foreword by Jane Goodall

Kids and Dogs: Playing, Walking, and Emotional Development.

Easy Ways to Connect Kids to Animals, People, and Nature.

Kids and Animals Helping One Another at Green Chimneys.

Who's Afraid of "Big Bad Nature"? Far Too Many Kids.

How Children's Literature Links to Narcissism and Violence.

The Emotional Lives of Animals; Children and Animal Minds.

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