Author-illustrator Jeanette Winter was finishing work on Oil (Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane, March 2020) a picture book about the Exxon Valdez spill written by her son, Jonah, when her longtime editor Allyn Johnston gently wondered if she had an idea for what she might do next.
“I almost hated to ask because Jeanette is now 80 and I don’t want to put pressure on her but she said, ‘I do have a manuscript. Do you want to see it?’,” recalls Johnston, v-p and publisher of Beach Lane Books. That was three weeks ago. The manuscript, titled Our House Is on Fire, is a picture book biography about Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and her crusade to save the planet from global warming. It’s now crashing onto Johnston’s fall list. “I grew up on the beach in Malibu,” she says. “This topic has been worrying my family for 30 years. Jeanette’s manuscript gave me goosebumps. I asked her when she might finish the artwork and she had done all of it already.”
Winter read a New York Times profile of Thunberg in February, then sought out some of her speeches on YouTube and was wowed. “She speaks more powerfully about this than any adult I’ve ever heard,” Winter says. “I thought: I have to get to work.” She completed the manuscript and artwork in less than two weeks.
Johnston says as soon as she read Winter’s manuscript she knew the book needed to be out in the world as soon as possible. She went to her boss, Jon Anderson, president and publisher of S&S Children’s Publishing. “I know this is kind of crazy,” she told him, “but do you think there’s any possibility we can get this book on the fall list?” He agreed they should try. Sales and marketing endorsed the idea, too. “Everybody got behind it because this issue is so important,” Johnston says. “Greta is a hero to so many people.” Susan Cohen at Writers House negotiated the deal for world rights.
Thunberg, now 16, came to Sweden’s—and then the world’s—attention a year ago when, upset by her government’s slow response to climate change, she staged a one-person strike, skipping class every Friday to sit outside the Swedish Parliament building with a sign that read “School Strike for Climate.” As her protest continued, more students joined her. News of the protest spread on social media, giving voice to a generation frustrated by adults’ inaction. Thunberg was recently named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019. Her movement has since spread to more than 1,800 cities in 130 countries, with the social media hashtags #FridaysForFuture and #ClimateStrike. The teen has earned international acclaim for her climate change activism, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Winter is a celebrated picture book creator whose works include The Secret Project (also written by Jonah Winter), and a series of picture book biographies that have focused attention on lesser known figures in modern society, including the architect Zaha Hadid and a girl named Nasreen, who flouted the Taliban’s decrees and secretly established a school for girls in Afghanistan. Winter’s daily habit of reading the New York Times has paid off professionally more than once: she also found the subject for her book The Librarian of Basra in the Times’ pages.
“I depend on the New York Times and not the online version. The print edition,” she says. “I had not heard of Greta until I read about her in the Times.”
Thunberg’s profile in the U.S. is likely to get a lot bigger, not only because of Winter’s biography. She is also the subject of an illustrated YA book, We Are All Greta: Be Inspired to Save the World by Valentina Giannella, illustrated by Manuela Marazzi, which is being translated from Italian to English by Laurence King Publishing and scheduled for release in September, in time for the next “Global Climate Strike,” an international student walk-out allied with Thunberg’s movement.
She is also scheduled to speak at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York in September, sailing from England to the U.S. in order to minimize the environmental impact of her trip. Thunberg does not fly because of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with air travel.
The title of Winter’s book comes from a speech Thunberg gave at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year. “I don’t want you to be hopeful,” Thunberg told the audience of political leaders. “I want you to panic. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”