Why Humans Work: How Jobs Shape Our Lives and Our Work by Monique Polak, illus. Suharu Ogawa

Review by Charlotte Mundy

Orca Book Publishers, May 2022

96 pages, Paperback, $24.95 CAD, 9781459827950

Ages 9-12, Grades 4-6

Middle Grade, Non-Fiction

Geography can influence the kind of work children do or dream of doing. If your dream is to be a gondolier, you had better live in Venice, where gondoliers operate flat-bottomed boats called gondolas. If you can never have enough Parmesan cheese on your pasta, you might want to become a Parmigiano-Reggiano tester. These testers work in Italy too, where they tap wheels of cheese. They know from the sound whether the cheese is good enough to eat. If you enjoy pushing people around, you might apply for a job in Tokyo, where oshiya, or pushers, literally push people onto crowded trains. If you like ravens, consider a job at the Tower of London in England, the only place in the world that employs raven masters. These raven masters look after the resident ravens believed to protect the tower and the royal family.

Monique Polak offers a refreshingly educational and well-researched view into the multifaceted topic of work in her new book Why Humans Work: How Jobs Shape Our Lives and Our World, illustrated by Suharu Ogawa. She not only provides the reader with objective information on work, but also seeks to provide a holistic perspective on how work is perceived around the world. From those who are unwavering in their quest to follow their passions to those who stumble into a job completely by accident, this text provides a well-rounded view of the many layers of work.

The book begins with an explanation on the history behind working while incorporating stories of children at work, putting an emphasis on their value and importance as workers. For kids, work starts with homework! The text reads neutrally, giving accurate and realistic accounts of what it means to work. Whether it is a milkman who tells his colourful story or the “Little Plumber Girl” who discusses breaking gender roles, working peoples’ profiles are scattered throughout the pages to bring the informative text to life.

This book is not shy about addressing some of the many issues surrounding work today. Topics include privilege, discrimination, slavery, human trafficking, child labour, and the ways in which COVID-19 has changed work. Both educational and necessary, anyone who reads this book will recognize the darker realities of exploitative labour. There is also an element of considering jobs for future generations. The “gig economy” is explained as a movement toward non-traditional work, such as freelance, that is expected to continue to grow. New jobs are expected to exist that never existed before and many old jobs are expected to be run by robots and artificial intelligence!

The text is supported with plenty of cartoonish illustrations representing the topic being discussed. One of these is of a workaholic woman who has manifested many arms while frantically multitasking. Another depicts a mentor as an older adult providing support to a hopeful young child on a farm. These illustrations add a comical lightheartedness while providing visual descriptions to the text. When starting a new chapter, Suharu Ogawa adds splashes of colour to her illustrations, occupying both pages simultaneously and setting the tone for the next topic.

Why Humans Work: How Jobs Shape Our Lives and Our World gives its reader an educational, multi-dimensional view into why we work. Although it is listed for kids, everyone can learn something from this book!

Charlotte Mundy completed her undergraduate with a BSc in Nursing. Living with the curse of creativity while working in a scientific field, she has been taking writing courses at UBC to satisfy her appetite for literature. She has always enjoyed reading and writing and hopes to one day become an author.

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