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Greta Thunberg Turns 17: The Teen Activist Galvanized a Global Youth Movement on Climate Change

Greta Thunberg's leadership has inspired millions of young people to take a stand and demand action on climate change.

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen activist who founded the Youth Strike for Climate Movement and was one of 2019's most influential people, turned 17 today! She began her skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for climate) in August 2018 as a solo protest, but today her Fridays for Future protests span the globe. An estimated 1.4 million students in 125 countries turned out for the first Global Climate Strike in March and six million people participated in September's climate strike actions that took place in 4,500 locations in 150 countries. Greta has persisted in her work to demand action from governments to address this environmental crisis, despite frequent criticism, much of it based on her age. "I agree with [my detractors], I’m too young to do this," she wrote early in 2019. "We children shouldn’t have to do this. But since almost no one is doing anything, and our very future is at risk, we feel like we have to continue."

On the surface, Greta is an unlikely person to start a global movement: the teenager, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's, admits that she's painfully shy. "I have always been that girl in the back who doesn’t say anything," she explains. "I thought I couldn’t make a difference because I was too small." But from an early age, stories about the dangers to our environment affected her more deeply than her peers. "I remember when I was younger, and in school, our teachers showed us films of plastic in the ocean, starving polar bears and so on. I cried through all the movies," she recalls. "My classmates were concerned when they watched the film, but when it stopped, they started thinking about other things. I couldn’t do that.... Some people can just let things go, but I can’t, especially if there’s something that worries me or makes me sad."

Greta outside the Swedish parliament building, August 2018 (Credit: Anders Hellberg)

Greta was inspired to take her concerns public after seeing the Parkland students in Florida walk out to protest gun violence. On August 20, 2018, she painted a sign on a piece of wood, wrote a flyer to hand out to passers-by, and sat down to protest outside the Swedish parliament. "The first day, I sat alone from about 8:30 am to 3:00 pm — the regular school day," she recalls. "And then on the second day, people started joining me. After that, there were people there all the time." Then, she took a bold step and began to speak at public events, including a protest outside the European Parliament in October and the COP24 United Nations Climate Change Conference in December.

As her profile rose, Greta had the opportunity to meet with — and challenge — world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019. She urged them to take the steps necessary to stop climate change, and she didn't mince words when she did so. "I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic," she said bluntly in her speech at Davos. "You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent 1.5 [degrees Celsius] of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t. Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival.... I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act."

Greta organized her first global day of action, the School Strike for Climate, in March 2019, and it exceeded all expectations. Among the 1.4 million students in 125 countries who spent the day striking for climate action, over 30,000 students walked out in Sydney, 10,000 rallied in London, England, and huge crowds turned in New York, Toronto, Lisbon, San Francisco, and many other cities around the world. Then, she repeated her success in September, personally leading a march of 250,000 people in New York City, while around the world an estimated six million people at 4,500 events in 150 countries also raised their voices according to The Guardian newspaper. "We will do everything in our power to stop this crisis from getting worse," she said during her speech on September 20. "We demand a safe future. Is that really too much to ask?"

Three days later, Greta gave a powerful speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, castigating world leaders for failing to act on the climate crisis. "This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!" she accused them. "There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with [current climate change figures] here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you."

As she has emerged as one of the world's most influential teenagers, Greta has become a leader and role model to other children and teens around the world. But along with her fame has come criticism and online bullying. "I’ve seen many rumors circulating about me and enormous amounts of hate," she says. She has been mocked for her appearance and her Asperger's diagnosis. Critics have also claimed that she's being paid for her protests and that she doesn't write her own speeches. While she acknowledges that it's hard to read these accusations, Greta says that she considers them a positive sign: "I expected when I started that if this is going to become big, then there will be a lot of hate.... I think that must be because they see us as a threat. That means that something has changed in the debate, and we are making a difference."

"This movement had to happen, we didn’t have a choice. The vast majority of climate strikers taking action today aren’t allowed to vote," she wrote in a Guardian op-ed. "Despite watching the climate crisis unfold, despite knowing the facts, we aren’t allowed to have a say in who makes the decisions about climate change. And then ask yourself this: wouldn’t you go on strike too, if you thought doing so could help protect your own future?... When our house is burning we cannot just leave it to the children to pour water on the flames — we need the grownups to take responsibility for sparking the blaze in the first place. So for once, we’re asking grownups to follow our lead: we can’t wait any longer."

Greta's powerful activism has been recognized with a nomination for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize and being named TIME magazine's 2019 Person of the Year. While she's grateful for the attention to her cause, Greta is focused on ongoing efforts to demand action. On December 11, 2019, she spoke at the COP25 United Nations Climate Conference in Madrid, Spain. "A year and a half ago, I didn’t speak to anyone unless I really had to, but then I found a reason to speak," she said. "In just three weeks, we will enter a new decade, a decade that will define our future. Right now we are desperate for any sign of hope. Well, I’m telling you, there is hope. I have seen it but it does not come from the governments or corporations. It comes from the people.... Every great change throughout history has come from the people. We do not have to wait. We can start the change right now."

Children's Books About Greta Thunberg

Greta and the Giants
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Inspired by Greta Thunberg's Stand to Save the World

Greta and the Giants
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Inspired by Greta Thunberg's Stand to Save the World

Written by: Zoe Tucker
Illustrated by: Zoe Persico
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Introduce young readers to Greta Thunberg's inspiring work on behalf of the environment with this allegorical picture book! Greta lives in a beautiful forest that's threatened by Giants, who chop down trees to make bigger and bigger cities. She wants to help the animals of the forest — and make the Giants see what they're destroying — but she's not sure how to do it. Kids will enjoy this fairy tale-like story and be intrigued to read the section in the back about Greta's ongoing fight and how they can help.

Our House Is On Fire: Greta Thunberg's Call to Save the Planet
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Our House Is On Fire: Greta Thunberg's Call to Save the Planet
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Written by: Jeanette Winter
Illustrated by: Jeanette Winter
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

Greta Thunberg was horrified when her teacher explained how our climate was changing. Why weren't adults doing more about it? If the grown-ups weren't paying attention, she decided, she would make them pay attention. She started a weekly "School Strike for Climate" and before long, teens around the world joined her. Today, she speaks to audiences of world leaders with her important message: "I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is." This powerful picture book by acclaimed author/illustrator Jeannette Winter is a timely and accessible story for young readers about the power of a single voice.

Greta's Story: The Schoolgirl Who Went On Strike To Save The Planet
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Greta's Story: The Schoolgirl Who Went On Strike To Save The Planet
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Written by: Valentina Camerini
Illustrated by: Veronica Carratello
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

It was one of the hottest summers on record in Stockholm, Sweden, when a 15-year-old named Greta Thunberg skipped school and sat down in front of the parliament building with a handmade sign. Her mission: draw attention to the need for action on environmental issues, particularly climate change. In this biography for middle grade readers, author Valentina Camerini explores lesser-known aspects of Greta's life — from her parents' supporting roles in her work to her Asperger's diagnosis and her advocacy for mental health — capturing her fierce determination as just part of a full portrait of this daring Mighty Girl activist.

We Are All Greta: Be Inspired to Save the World
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We Are All Greta: Be Inspired to Save the World
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Written by: Valentina Giannella
Illustrated by: Manuela Marazzi
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Greta Thunberg founded the School Strike for Climate movement — but we can all be part of making it a success! This inspiring, in-depth illustrated book mixes biographical information about Greta with a detailed introduction to how climate changes relates to everything from biodiversity to sustainable development. Kids will learn about how Greta founded the School Strike for Climate movement, and how they can fight for change in their own cities, states, and countries. Uplifting and empowering, this book is a must-have for anyone who wants kids to better understand what's happening to the environment and how they can make a difference.

No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference
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No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference
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Written by: Greta Thunberg
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg collects her most passionate and powerful speeches on environmental issues in this book! Eleven of her speeches from September 2018 to April 2019 are reproduced here, including "Our House Is On Fire," given at the World Economic Forum in Davos; "I'm Too Young To Do This," from Stockholm in February 2019; and "Can You Hear Me?" from the Houses of Parliament in London in April 2019. All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to charity.

Children's Books About The Environment and Activism

The EARTH Book

The EARTH Book

Written by: Todd Parr
Recommended Age: 2 - 4

"I take care of the earth because I know I can do little things every day to make a BIG difference." This book draws direct connections between suggestions for environmentally-friendly life and the way those actions protect the Earth — using both sides of the paper, for example, means fewer trees cut for paper, which also protects the wildlife that lives within those trees. Best-selling author / illustrator Todd Parr’s signature art style is colorful and fun — and printed on recycled paper with soy inks. The book also includes a poster full of reminders of how kids can take care of the Earth every day.

Me...Jane

Me...Jane

Written by: Patrick McDonnell
Recommended Age: 3 - 8

Who knew that the young girl who carried a stuffed chimpanzee would redefine the meaning of human and force us to reconsider our stewardship of the planet? In this charming story of Jane Goodall's childhood, readers learn how she first developed her interest in the natural world — as well as her patience when observing animals in their own environment, which she practiced on her family's chickens! This inspirational picture book biography focuses on Goodall's childhood, but includes a picture of Goodall with the chimps at Gombe to show how she realized her dreams, as well as back matter about Goodall's environmental work. Fans of Goodall will also want to check out The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps for ages 4 to 8.

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed A City Forever

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed A City Forever

Written by: H. Joseph Hopkins
Illustrated by: Jill McElmurry
Recommended Age: 4 - 9

Katherine Olivia Sessions grew up in Northern California, among tall pines and redwoods, and couldn't imagine living in a place without trees. But when she moved to the dry desert town of San Diego to work as a teacher, she discovered that there were almost no trees there. So she decided that her new city could use more than a hint of green and started a massive movement that transformed the town into the green, garden-filled oasis it is today. This beautiful story about a women who brought trees to a place where no one expected to find them is sure to inspire kids to make their own communities a little more green.

Seeds of Change: Wangari's Gift to the World

Seeds of Change: Wangari's Gift to the World

Written by: Jen Cullerton Johnson
Illustrated by: Sonia Lynn Sadler
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

As a young girl growing up in Kenya, Wangari Maathai's family defied tradition so she could get an education; she also learned traditional Kikuyu reverence for nature. As a young adult, she had the opportunity to attend university – if she went to the US. But she swore she would return, and when she did, she combined her scientific education with her appreciation for good husbandry of natural resources to found the Green Belt Movement, which not only provided sustainable work for women across Kenya, but also helped them replant millions of trees. This vibrant picture book biography of the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize pays tribute to how Maathai literally changed Kenya's landscape forever.

Follow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtles

Follow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtles

Illustrated by: Meilo So
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Viv has just moved to a new town by the sea, and she's still struggling to feel at home — "I always need help finding my way, especially in a new place," she thinks. On her first day at school, her teacher tells her that they're looking for a community action project to do. And when Viv learns about the sea turtle hatcheries nearby — and the way the hatchlings can get lost when they mistake artificial lights for the moon that normally guides their way — that the class finds the perfect project. This picture book based on the real kids who helped save the South Carolina sea turtles is sure to inspire young animal lovers!

Rachel Carson and Her Book that Changed the World

Rachel Carson and Her Book that Changed the World

Written by: Laurie Lawlor
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

As a shy young woman, Rachel Carson found joy and purpose in studying the creatures all around her. Her articles and books about marine life made her a best-selling author, but it was her groundbreaking book Silent Spring, about the effects of the pesticide DDT on wild animals and birds, that turned her into a household name — and helped found the modern environmental movement. Written for the fiftieth anniversary of Silent Spring's publication, this thoughtful picture book shows how a quiet and dedicated scientist changed the way people thought of their effects on the Earth. For two more picture books about Carson, check out Rachel Carson: Preserving a Sense of Wonder and Rachel: The Story of Rachel Carson.

One Plastic Bag

Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia

One Plastic Bag

Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia

Written by: Miranda Paul
Illustrated by: Elizabeth Zunon
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

In Gambia, when people used woven baskets, they would toss them out when the broke, and the baskets would break down. But when they did the same thing with plastic bags, the bags never went away and soon they littered the entire country. It was Isatou Ceesay's innovative idea to recycle the bags by crocheting them into purses. The women involved in her project were able to earn money selling their creations and the streets were soon clean again. This real-life story of a clever woman's solution to both an ecological challenge and a way to find employment for local women is sure to inspire young readers.

Start Now! You Can Make a Difference

Start Now! You Can Make a Difference

Written by: Chelsea Clinton
Recommended Age: 7 - 11

Activism can sometimes seem overwhelming — but there are problems large and small that kids can tackle every day! In this book, Chelsea Clinton addresses five key concepts — health, hunger, climate change, endangered species, and bullying — and shows kids how to start solving them, either individually, locally, or globally. Each chapter ends with a "Start Now!" bullet list, providing suggestions for young would-be activists to take first steps towards big changes. Kids will particularly love the photographs of real kids, just like them, who have started leading the way for people around them.

Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change: Courageous Actions Around The World

Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change: Courageous Actions Around The World

Written by: Garth Sundem
Recommended Age: 9 - 13

Tweens can learn how kids just like them turned their passion into tangible change with this inspiring book! The thirty profiles included tell the stories of how girls and boys around the world did amazing things, from raising money to drill wells to fighting against segregation to warning neighbors of oncoming disaster. These stories remind kids that being a hero doesn’t have to be complicated. Heroism comes from seeing people in need and using the resources you have (and a lot of determination!) to help. It's the perfect way to prompt kids to think about what kind of hero they will be.

It's Your World! Get Informed, Get Inspired, & Get Going!

It's Your World! Get Informed, Get Inspired, & Get Going!

Written by: Chelsea Clinton
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Kids need to hear that this world isn't just for the adults — it's their world too! Author Chelsea Clinton breaks down some key social issues facing the world today, including poverty, climate change, gender equality, health, and endangered species. With a mix of statistics and personal stories she shows what challenges affect each of these areas, and then breaks down how kids and teens can help. Empowering and informative, this book encourages kids to take ownership of the world around them and reminds them that every person can make a difference.

Be A Changemaker: How to Start Something That Matters

Be A Changemaker: How to Start Something That Matters

Written by: Laurie Ann Thompson
Recommended Age: 12 and up

When a teen has an idea for a way to change the world, she may not know what to do to make it a reality. This book will guide her through it, step by step! Individual chapters cover everything from refining your idea to fundraising to creating a business plan, and even discuss what to do when you're ready to move on, whether you're closing down your project or handing it off to another person. Changing the world may not be easy, but with this book, she'll know where to start.

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