In 1992, 12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki delivered a powerful speech at the UN 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 youth activists following in Cullis-Suzuki’s footsteps, it is more urgent than ever to revisit her words. Severn Speaks Out (Groundwood Books, out now), the first instalment in the Speak Out series, brings her speech to life with stunning illustrations and in-depth commentary that provide further context and reflection. “It’s moving that the speech a 12-year-old gave so long ago is still being heard,” says Cullis-Suzuki. “A generation later it’s time to act – we can’t afford to wait any longer.”
Quill & Quire sat down with Karen Li, publisher at Groundwood Books, to learn more about the Speak Out series.
How did the Speak Out series come about, and why did you choose Severn Speaks Out as the first in the series?
Spanish publisher AKIARA originally published the series. When I saw it in their catalogue, I was immediately drawn to it for two reasons: the first being it’s a striking package that’s done beautifully, and the second being its focus on social justice – kids have questions and they want answers.
We started the series with Severn’s speech because Severn is Canadian, and, at a young age, she stepped forward. Today, Greta Thunberg is in the news for similar reasons. I see this book speaking to young readers because they can not only see themselves in it, but also the parallels between Severn’s and Greta’s work.
The book serves as a reminder that this is an ongoing struggle of youth activists across generations, and gives them the autonomy to speak out and ask difficult questions. Was that the intention?
Yes, and that there’s hope. That you’re in a long line of people who cared enough, that you’re not alone, and that you have support – you’re not the first young person [who has cared about the environment], and you can look to these people as mentors as you make your way into the world.
We like to think that a child’s world is a cocooned safe space, but children are always looking around themselves to make sense of it all. They’re never given enough credit.
What feels bittersweet is that it’s children who have been calling out adults to protect their futures. Do you feel that things have changed?
What struck me reading Severn’s speech again, and also thinking about Greta, is the difference in approach. Severn’s approach was, “You need to take accountability,” whereas Greta says, “We are not waiting for you anymore.” It’s a different world now because of how people are able to mobilize, and they don’t have to rely on traditional systems.
I remember Severn saying a lot has actually changed. What directly emerged after the wake of her speech was a structure of global diplomacy in regards to the environment. I do think it’s something that can fill someone with hope.
Can you tell us about the other books in the Speak Out series?
We’re wrapping [production on] the next one, which is Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize speech (to be published in the fall of 2023). It’s such a powerful speech, and she’s a figure people will know outside of Canada as well. The analysis and context is really interesting. After that, we have Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai.
I should also say, as a publisher, [another reason] why I was so compelled by these books is that persuasive writing, debate, and argumentative writing are all part of the core curriculum. I could see an amazing place for these books in schools, because they present mentor texts and the context of why they’re great speeches.
With everything that’s happening in the world and in the past year, these books continue to prove themselves to be relevant.
Speaking of relevance, what is the thing you hope young readers will take away from 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.