Work in Children's Books

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"Hi ho, hi ho! it's off to work we go!" and some of us may whistle but others may groan at the prospect. Most of us do a little bit of both. It might be fun this month to work with work this month. Since the subject is approached in many books and since our kids see work going on all around them and are doing quite a bit of it themselves, we'll have no trouble finding information on the subject. Work can be approached through economics, geography, history, math, science, health and sociology. We can find plenty of work songs and there's no shortage of artwork on the subject either. So, we can pull in the entire curriculum and all the teachers who teach that curriculum and since one or more family members are often gainfully employed or looking to be so, kids can get plenty of information from that source as well.

Grab a book and let's get going. What book? I'd take Michelle Edwards' Chicken Man (Lothrop, 1991 ISBN 0688097081. Order Info.) because I love Rody and it's nice to start out a theme about work with a character who loves his job so much he makes it seem like play. That's the point of the book, of course. On the kibbutz, Rody is given the job of caring for the chickens. He loves it! They, the chickens, love him. Everything is wonderful until the other workers on the kibbutz begin to notice and the more they notice how happy Rody is, the more they want his job. Changes are demanded and they occur. Rody's chicken job is given to someone else and Rody is employed elsewhere on the kibbutz. Although he misses the chickens, he makes the best of the new job and is so successful at doing so that others demand that wonderful job. So it goes until everyone absorbs the lesson most of us got lots sooner. It's the person not the job. Rody is sent back to the chickenhouse and he and the chickens are overjoyed at the reunion.

The book should lead to some discussion about people who seem to love their work. Encourage the kids to make a list of the people in the school, in their neighborhood and in their homes who, they think, love their work. Step two of course is to find out if their assumptions are correct. Go talk to those people and see what they say. Most of those people will be happy to tell the kids what they like about what they do and, if they're at all honest, they'll probably mention a few drawbacks as well. Get the kids to make note of both and then head back to the books.

Ann Morris has done a wonderful series of photographic essays on various world wide topics and her book Work (Lothrop, 1998 ISBN 0688148662. Order Info.) gives a survey of all kinds of work around the world. Leafing through it together may help some kids expand their notion of what work is.

Grab for other picture books in which one or more types of work are highlighted but don't restrict yourself to the list below. Encourage kids to look at books about baseball or any other sport (Sports books), books that take place in the city and on the farm, looking for evidence of workers. Besides the players, coaches and managers in professional baseball, for instance, there are the groundskeepers, ticket takers, food handlers, ushers and the like. Go a little deeper and you get the manufacturers of equipment, electricians, announcers and so on.

Start a huge list of occupations you find all around you as well as in books. Encourage kids to think about the advantages and disadvantages that they can determine of each job. Start dividing jobs into goods or services or into skilled and non-skilled, professions or trades. Also think about the training and skills necessary for those jobs.

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Another way to look at work is how the work their parents do effects them. In Karen Ackerman and Catherine Stock's (author's website) By the Dawn's Early Light (Simon, 1994 ISBN 0689317883. Order Info.), for instance, the mother works the graveyard shift in a factory and that means their household has to run differently than it would if she worked a day shift. In Amelia's Road by Linda Altman (Lee & Low Books, 1995 ISBN 188000027X. Book Review and Order Info.) and Enrique Sanchez, Amelia's folks pick vegetables and fruit for a living and that means the family is constantly moving. The fact that the boy's father in Just Like My Dad by Tricia Gardella & Margot Apple (HarperTrophy, 1996 ISBN 006443463X. Order Info.) is a rancher means that the boy's life is much different than it would have been if his father worked on Wall Street.

Don't stop with occupations in this country. Move abroad. My Father's Boat by Sherry Garland and Ted Rand (Orchard, 1998 ISBN 0531300730. Order Info.) is a good vehicle with which to do that. In this book the boy and his father are shrimp fishing in America. It is a trade taught to him by his father's father and they think of him still fishing in Vietnam as they work. That book not only brings us to occupations in other countries, it brings forward the notion of trades handed down. Look through the phone book for firms and businesses in which "and family" or "and sons" are part of their name.

Start making work chains in which the goods or services produced by one job are used to help produce or provide service for a person doing another job. There are also the chains of products: the steel produced can be used to make carpentry tools that can be used to build houses, etc. Challenge some kids to use some artistic creativity through which to present these chains of action and reaction.

Biographies are almost always centered on an occupation or series of occupations undertaken by the subject of the book. The kids who enjoy biographies will have no trouble isolating the jobs involved.

Prepare a questionnaire that you can send out to people asking for information about their jobs. After you've got a few questions, get some kids to use them to get information and then report back to the group on the success of the questions themselves. Did they elicit enough information? What other questions do you need? Find ways to collate the information you will receive.

Encourage kids to find a job that interests them, not necessarily one they think they might like to have someday but just a job that interests them now. Follow through on the subject and bring back to the group as much useful information on that job as possible.

Meanwhile, keep priming the pump. Go back to the idea of work in other countries while also reaching out to the subject of pride in one's work. Share the book Storytellers by Ted Lewin (Lothrop, 1998 ISBN 0688151787. Order Info.). The boy and his grandfather travel through the market in Fez, Morocco observing many workers but, as the boy keeps telling us, none of those jobs are as good as theirs. We know from the title what that is. The book may get kids thinking more about non-conventional jobs such as storytelling (a wonderful and noble profession as yours truly is glad to testify). Also, the market shown in Storytellers may seem exotic and quite unlike anything the kids have ever seen. Imagine what the people working in that market would think of our malls. Set some kids off in that direction for some writing activities.

What about kids' work. The boy in Storytellers is working as hard as his grandfather is and many of our kids work very hard. Surveys are in order here. What kind of work do the kids in your school do at home, at school and in the workplace? How much of that work is paid in cash and how much in goods and services?

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Older readers can talk about the jobs in the society of The Giver by Lois Lowry (Houghton, 1993 ISBN 0395645662. Book Review and Order Info.). Each job in that supposedly ideal society is carefully matched to the abilities and personality of each citizen. What's wrong with that? What are the results in the book? Do we do anything like that in our society? What are the results? If the control in The Giver were exercised in our society, what jobs would each of your students think they'd probably be trained for? That question can only be answered by first self-assessing their own qualities and skills.

Maybe it's time to get into the physical science of work-machines simple and otherwise, how do they work? Health issues certainly are of concern in the workplace. Talk to some labor union people about the health concerns of their workers. Investigate protective agencies designed to make safer work places.

Look to the past with books about child labor. Read Lyddie by Katherine Paterson (Dutton, 1991 ISBN 0525673385. Book Review, Activities and Order Info.) for a look at labor in the mills of Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts. Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Bartoletti and Lewis Hines (Houghton, 1996 ISBN 0395778476. Order Info.) is a book full of photos and information about the kids who worked hard in the mines of Pennsylvania at the turn of the century.

cover artAnother look at the past is The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. (2009, Holt. ISBN 9780805088410. Order Info. Novel. 340 pages. Gr 4-8.) Set in 1899 Texas, this is the coming of age story of Calpurnia, the lone daughter in a family with six brothers. She longs to be a naturalist and is fascinated by the development of species while the gender roles set out for her continually thwart the discovery of her ambitions in science. Read More.

Don't stop with the past now look to the future. Sociologists now tell us that most of today's kids will have not one but as many as seven jobs in their future. Find out about these and other predictions with the older kids. What does that mean for them? What jobs might the future hold that we don't think of in our usual catalogue of careers? What jobs are we doing today that were probably not even conceived of by people fifty years ago?

These older kids may also take a critical look at picture book portrayals of work. Look at books published during the 30s and 40s such as Lois Lenski's books about the Small family. Mother works at home in high heels and a dress while Papa Small goes off in business suit and derby. Which job is treated with more respect? Check out the portrayal of male and female work in picture books up to the present day. When did the switch occur in which women are shown doing jobs previously thought of as "men's work"? What events were occurring in real life during that time?

We've traveled the world and gone from the past to the future with the subject of work and that's a long way to go and a lot of work. See you next month.

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