Teaching Compassion for Fish through Children’s Literature: An Interview with Dr. Jonathan Balcombe and Dana Buchwald

Recently, we partnered with The Gryphon Press to create a classroom guide for its newly published children’s book Jake and Ava: A Boy and a Fish. The story is about a boy named Jake, who spends the day fishing with his grandfather, while an archerfish named Ava spends the day learning important survival skills with her uncle. Jake catches Ava on his line and tells his grandfather that he wants to set her free after sensing her suffering, so they release her. Ava is reunited with her uncle and Jake tells his grandfather that he no longer wants to go fishing. His grandfather lets him know that he understands and says that what is important to him is simply spending time together. 

HEART wanted to learn more about the book, so we interviewed its creators, Jonathan Balcombe and Dana Buchwald. Author Dr. Jonathan Balcombe has written numerous scientific books, papers, and chapters and is a biologist with a PhD in ethology (the study of animal behavior), as well as Associate Editor for the journal Animal Sentience and a popular speaker. Dana Buchwald is co-publisher at The Gryphon Press and has worked as an attorney. She is a proud member of the Association of Professional Humane Educators and served on its Board of Directors.

Q: Can you both tell us what led you to working on behalf of animals in the ways that you have chosen to?

Jonathan: If there’s a “cares about animals” gene, I was born with it. I’ve always loved animals, and that manifested in two primary ways: 1) I loved watching them, and 2) I never wanted to harm them. My affinity for animals led to my getting three university degrees in biology and eventually working for over 30 years in animal protection. Over the past two decades, that vocation has morphed into my becoming an author of books about animals.

Dana:  Coming to work for Gryphon was the catalyst for me in terms of learning about issues of animal welfare/rights and igniting the spark to work on behalf of animals in various capacities. Before working for Gryphon, I had no idea that puppy mills existed, let alone knew about the suffering endured by animals in other cruel situations such as factory farming. Gryphon opened my eyes to the myriad ways that humans inflict harm on non-human animals. I started doing my own research to educate myself. In addition, for every book we publish, we do quite a bit of research on the particular topic that we address. 

In my first year working for Gryphon, I attended an Association of Professional Humane Educators conference. I learned so much — not only about issues that animals face, but the tremendous good that educators were doing through the unique lens and methodology of humane education. I was hooked! I fully embrace the idea that education is vitally important to changing lives, not only for non-human animals but also for people and the environment as well.  I believe that many people are simply unaware of the impact our behaviors have on non-human animals and that once they understand the issues and the opportunities, they often do better. 

I have always loved and believed in the power of literature and art as unique vehicles to inspire passion and empathy in people of all ages. Gryphon’s mission is to publish beautifully written and illustrated books in order to elicit empathy for all animal lives.  I feel very fortunate to be able to combine my love of literature, art, education, and advocacy.  Because my background is in law, I also volunteer on behalf of animals in that capacity as well.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this story? 

Jonathan: Like so many young children, I was introduced to “recreational” fishing at a quite young age (8 years old). I was disturbed by what I saw, but I hadn’t yet developed the moral awareness to conclude that it was wrong. However, seeing it from the fish’s perspective was enough to steer me away from ever becoming a fisherman. Jake and Ava: A Boy and a Fish was inspired by these personal experiences.

I wanted to write a book that encourages children to reflect on the fishing experience not just from their own perspective but also from that of the fish. Modern science shows that fishes are sentient, aware, and emotional, they can feel pleasure, and they can suffer pain and distress. In sum, their lives matter to them. I think it’s important to acknowledge and validate natural feelings of concern for other beings. Jake and Ava seeks to do that.

Q: What do you hope young people will learn from this book?

Dana:  Like Jonathan, I hope that they will learn to step out of their own perspective and empathize with the experiences of both Ava and Archie.  I also agree that it’s very important “to acknowledge and validate natural feelings of concern for other beings,” and I hope that young people will feel that validation from Jake and Ava.  I also hope they will be inspired to learn more about fishes as well as some of the threats that fishes face, and that they will want to take action to help fishes, even in small ways. I hope that young people will realize that fishes are sentient beings who feel pain and who value their lives.

Q: What are the benefits of using books to teach compassion for animals?

Jonathan: Because they can be re-read and experienced at different times in one’s life, books are a great tool for encouraging critical thinking and reflection. The beautiful paintings in Jake and Ava help bring the story to life. Another benefit of books is that they can be read aloud. This sets the stage for discussion and sharing ideas and perspectives.

Dana: Reading, whether it is reading aloud or on one’s own, is a powerful activity. There are reliable scientific studies that demonstrate the benefits of reading on young brains—especially the pre-school age group that we target with our picture books. Good literature stimulates the brain and can have profound and lasting effects on a child’s empathic capacity and analytical skills. Further, picture books bring joy and delight to people of all ages, a good in and of itself. 

 Q: What tips do you have for people interested in becoming authors of children’s books?

Jonathan: Write stories that have meaning to you. Always keep the reader’s perspective in mind. Don’t “talk down” to younger readers. Respect their desire and capacity to learn new words and concepts. Encourage them to think about the deeper meaning of a story, and to relate it to their own lives and feelings. Teach empathy, something the world cannot have too much of!

Dana: I have to agree with Jonathan again: write about what “has meaning to you and don’t talk down to young readers.” My advice for writers who want to write specifically in the area of humane education is to know your topic thoroughly, make sure you are adding something new to the subject you are writing about, and write both evocatively and precisely.  People often assume that writing a picture book is easy, which is not true! Like writing poetry, writing the text for a picture book demands meticulous word choices both for ease of reading and poetic effect. Most important, the writer must be able to make the reader care about the outcome of the story for the animal hero.


To learn more about Jake and Ava: A Boy and a Fish and its accompanying classroom guide, visit the book’s page on the Gryphon Press website

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