Some Thoughts on Young People Who Speak Truth to Power, in Real Life and in Books

Watching the magnificent teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg’s impassioned address at the UN on Monday was hard on many levels. She’s right about what’s happening to the planet, and she’s right that not enough is being done to stop climate change. She’s also right that the mad dash for profits and growth is taking a massive toll on earth. It’s not hard to agree with her.

Ms. Thunberg at the UN. Photo credit: Spencer Platt, Getty Images.

Ms. Thunberg at the UN. Photo credit: Spencer Platt, Getty Images.

What made it hard is knowing that we’re part of the generation she’s calling out for failing to act. What are we doing to contribute to this mess? I mean, what are we doing specifically at Penny Candy? How can we change our routines and patterns before it’s too late? Is it enough to use FSC certified paper if there’s still a ton of paper waste for each print run we do?

It’s also hard to know that the trolls will do whatever logical somersaults they can to take her down and discredit her. It’s hard when one of the trolls is the President of the United States. It’s hard to watch someone who speaks the truth get ignored, belittled, and dismissed.

Ms. Thunberg’s stare is worth more than a thousand words.

Ms. Thunberg’s stare is worth more than a thousand words.

Ms. Thunberg’s speech led to renewed attention for another teen activist, the Canadian Autumn Peltier, who delivered a stirring speech to the UN General Assembly last year about how water is sacred to her people and how all of us deserve access to safe, clean drinking water. It was thrilling to watch her be the mature one and urge President Trump that “we need to work together” and that “now is the time to warrior up and empower each other to take a stand for our planet.” Sadly, the modus operandi for most folks nowadays is to disempower those with different world views, to divide rather than discover common ground. The nearly empty room in which Ms. Peltier spoke seemed to underscore this fact.  

It made me recall the late Jan Wahl’s young adult novel from 1969 How the Children Stopped the Wars. I first came across this book about 6 years ago on a Unitarian Universalist church bookshelf. This was before Alexis and I had started Penny Candy Books. I liked the title so much that I did something I probably shouldn’t be proud of but sort of am? I “borrowed” it from the shelf but never returned it. I read it to my sons and was moved by the story of a brave kid who decides to march to the battlefield to stop the adults from fighting. Along the way more and more children join until eventually their numbers—and their moral authority—are greater than the warring adults’. They march onto the field and the soldiers become so ashamed that they drop their weapons and have a picnic.

A well-loved first edition of  How the Children Stopped the Wars .

A well-loved first edition of How the Children Stopped the Wars.

I so wish Jan were here to see how Ms. Thunberg has attracted more than a million kids from over 200 countries around the world to her cause, which is our cause. He would be so delighted and encouraged. But it would also be hard for him to see how some “adults” have reacted to Ms. Thunberg’s and Ms. Peltier’s speeches. Jan and I frequently spoke on the phone during the production of his final book Hedy and Her Amazing Invention. Our rambling conversations are certainly one of my professional highlights. I can almost hear him say to me, “Do adults have no shame anymore?!” I don’t know if we do.

No words necessary for this story of a brave girl who fights back.

No words necessary for this story of a brave girl who fights back.

But I’m also reminded of the little girl from The Hunt, our first and only wordless picture book, by the French artist Margaux Othats. How like Ms. Thunberg and Ms. Peltier, she refuses to back down when the forces of greed, violence, and fear (as embodied by two young men armed with shotguns) shamelessly destroy what she’s trying to create. How she patiently continues to build, despite the constant setbacks. And how her creation ultimately springs to life in the form of a giant stone wolf and snatches the young men by the scruffs of their necks and carries them away while our young heroine rides proudly and bravely on its back.

We adults better get with the program.