In 1992, 12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki delivered a powerful speech at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, urging world leaders to protect the environment for future generations. Thirty years later, as we witness the rise of young activists in the footsteps of Cullis-Suzuki, it is more urgent than ever to reconsider his words. Severn speaks out (Groundwood Books, out now), the first installment in the Speak Out series, brings his speech to life with stunning illustrations and in-depth commentary that provide additional context and thought. “It’s moving that the speech a 12-year-old gave so long ago is still being heard,” said Cullis-Suzuki. “A generation later, it’s time to act – we can’t afford to wait any longer.”
Feather and Quire sat down with Karen Li, publisher at Groundwood Books, to learn more about the Speak Out series.
How was the Speak Out series born and why did you choose Severn speaks out like the first in the series?
spanish editor AKIARA originally released the series. When I saw it in their catalog I was immediately drawn to it for two reasons: the first being that it is a remarkable and beautifully made set, and the second being that it emphasizes justice. social: children have questions and they want answers.
We started the series with Severn’s speech because Severn is Canadian and at a young age she came forward. Today, Greta Thunberg is in the news for similar reasons. I see this book resonating with young readers because they can not only see themselves in it, but also the parallels between Severn’s and Greta’s work.
The book reminds us that this is an ongoing struggle of young activists across generations and empowers them to speak up and ask tough questions. Was that the intention?
Yes, and that there is hope. That you are part of a long line of people who care enough about you, that you are not alone and that you have support – you are not the first young [who has cared about the environment]and you can look to these people as mentors as you progress through the world.
We like to think of a child’s world as a safe, cocooned space, but children are always looking around to make sense of it all. They are never given enough credit.
What seems bittersweet is that it was the children who called on the adults to protect their future. Do you feel things have changed?
What struck me re-reading Severn’s speech, and also thinking about Greta, is the difference in approach. Severn’s approach was, “You have to take responsibility,” while Greta said, “We’re not expecting you anymore. It’s a different world now because of the way people are able to mobilize, and they don’t have to rely on traditional systems.
I remember Severn saying a lot of things had changed. What emerged directly from the wake of his speech was a framework for global environmental diplomacy. I think it’s something that can fill someone with hope.
Can you tell us about the other books in the Speak Out series?
We pack [production on] the next, which is Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize Speech (to be released in the fall of 2023). He is such a powerful speech, and he is also a figure that people will know outside of Canada. The analysis and context are really interesting. After that we have Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai.
I must also say, as an editor, [another reason] The reason I was so drawn to these books is because persuasive writing, debate, and argumentative writing are all part of the core curriculum. I could see an incredible place for these books in schools, as they present mentor texts and the context of why these are great talks.
With everything going on in the world and in the past year, these books continue to prove relevant.
Speaking of relevance, what is one thing you hope young readers will take away? Severn speaks out and the Speak Out series as a whole?
It’s a very simple answer: your words matter.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photograph by Patrick Shannon.