heigh ho! heigh ho! it’s off to work we go…a list of five books in praise of work

I planned this list of five to coordinate with Labor Day but didn’t get it finished due to a family emergency. Work is worth celebrating on more than one day, though, so here are five books elevating the joy and dignity of a job well done.

Worksong, by Gary Paulsen, illustrated by Ruth Wright Paulsenworksong cover image

From carpenters and steelworkers to nurses and ice cream scoopers, this simple, brief narrative sets forth the beauty and variety and rhythm of honest, hard work.  

Paulsen’s lines — just a few words per page —  are unadorned, yet poetic; matter-of-worksong illustration ruth wright paulsen 001fact, yet graceful, as he calls our attention to the useful, helpful, jobs that enrich our lives.  His excellent word choices evoke strength, provision, care, and community. The paean ends with a well-earned rest at end of day, which rejuvenates us for “the next day’s song.” I love the metaphor of work as song. Really beautiful.

Ruth Paulsen has illustrated this poem with her lovely, quiet, dignified oil paintings. Her palette of tawny golds, olive greens, robin’s egg blue, and earthy browns, conveys warmth, worth, and respectability. Each occupation pictured hums with vital interest.

This quiet book offers a thoughtful look at the grandeur of human creativity and work, in a package accessible to ages 3 or 4 and up. Simply beautiful.

the everything machine cover imageThe Everything Machine, written and illustrated by Matt Novak


Over on planet Quirk, the Everything Machine is busy, busy, busy. That’s because the Everything Machine handles…everything!  It paints, it cooks, it chops and scrubs. It cleans, it mows, it even colors the pages of the Quirkian babies’ coloring books and scratches all those itchy Quirkian the everything machine illustration matt novak 001backs!

The people of Quirk don’t need to lift a finger…

…until one desperate day when the Everything Machine goes on the fritz. A repairman is called in but it’s a tricky job that’ll take some time. Meanwhile — what’s to be done? Quirkians need to eat! Floors need mopping! Clothes need washing!

Lo and behold…as the good folk from Quirk begin learning these tasks, they make a dramatic discovery: work is fun! Growing lovely flowers and concocting delicious pastries and even tying one’s own shoes are all satisfying, delightful enterprises. When their Machine is fixed and ready to take over again, the Quirkians resolutely resist its help. Now the only questions is — what’s to be done with the beloved Machine? Never fear…there’s one happy task remaining for it to do.

I love the premise of this interplanetary, most extraordinary story, as well as Novak’s cheerful, sunny artwork exploding with gizmos and gears and Quirkians sprouting one antenna with a perky red cherry topper on each noggin. Delightful story for ages 5 and up.

the top job cover imageThe Top Job, by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, illustrated by Robert Neubecker

It’s Career Day in Mrs. Feeny’s classroom, and each pupil is telling about her parent’s job. There are some mighty impressive jobs out there, from UFO tracker to NASCAR driver. So, when one little girl stands up to say her father is a lightbulb changer…no one is interested at all.the top job illustration robert neubecker 001

Unperturbed, this young girl goes on to explain just how and where her father changes those lightbulbs, and as she reveals the special equipment he must wear, the impossibly high place he must climb to, and the haste with which he must complete this task, the whole class becomes utterly dazzled by this highly-unusual, terribly-exciting job!

Without giving away the surprise in this story, I’ll just say that you’ll learn fascinating details about 1) a very interesting and true job, and 2) an iconic New York City landmark.  I do not intend to apply for this job any time soon, I must say!

Robert Neubecker’s vibrant illustrations pulse with energy and daring-do and the magical vibe of NYC.  From the Art Deco style font to the vigorous black outlining and punch-y color scheme, this is a wide-awake, lively story that will definitely appeal to early elementary students.

harvesting hope cover imageHarvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez, by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales

When Cesar Chavez was ten, his family lost the magnificent, 80-acre, Arizona ranch which held so many golden, happy  memories. It was 1937, and the drought that afflicted the land had finally driven them to join  hundreds of thousands of others in a move to California, seeking migrant farm work.

The Chavez family traded their spacious, comfortable house for a cruddy shed, reunions with cousins for crotchety neighbors, and dignified independence for a grim life of labor on another’s farm. The work was physically punishing and the earnings were extremely meager. The education that quiet, shy Chavez longed for was sadly out of reach. 

As Chavez grew older, he chose to join forces with those advocating for change in the legal rights for migrant workers. An introverted harvesting hope illustration yuyi moralesman, Chavez did not initially thrive in a leadership role, but his stubbornness served him well and before long, Chavez found himself leading the fight, rallying the workers, organizing marches, arguing with the police, walking miles with painful blisters, and finally, celebrating the first contract signed on behalf of farm workers in America.

Kathleen Krull’s short biography of Chavez is a powerful account of justice-seeking, and an inspiring look at one who took on a role that needing doing despite feelings of inadequacy. An Author’s Note gives a more complex account of Chavez, including the hunger strikes he underwent which eventually took his life at age 66.

Yuyi Morales’ acrylic illustrations have a stylized, WPA mural, feel to them, with sweeping, curving, vigorous  lines dominating the pages. The gorgeous land and skies and crops seem to cradle us like a featherbed, and the rounded, statuesque people in their jewel-toned garb likewise infuse the scenes with strength and beauty. The artwork presents a nobility, rather than a sense of poverty and desperation, to the cause.

Excellent biography for elementary age children which will also draw attention to the intensive work involved in growing the food we too often take for granted.

paddy pork odd jobs cover imagePaddy Pork: Odd Jobs, a wordless book by John S. Goodall

Paddy Pork is a beloved pig who stars in many outstanding little books by Goodall. They are hard to find, but highly recommended!

In this episode, Paddy is in search of the odd job, but poor Paddy! He runs into one disaster after the other! Beginning with a wallpapering job, and moving on to chimney repair, window cleaning, and water pump repair, Paddy manages to create such a catastrophe at every turn that he is ever fleeing his enraged employers. Yikes!

Along the way, however, Paddy hears a piece of news — a distressed mama is filing a report for her missing child. And fortunately, as Paddy applies himself to his fifth odd job, he stumbles across the darling little one and manages to save the day. Phew!

Goodall’s books are formatted for small hands, and feature clever half-pages to turn which change the scene and provide wonderful paddy pork odd jobs illust john goodall 001motion and flow to the story line. Without a single word, the marvelous personality of dear Paddy pours out of the pages and we cheer along with the villagers when he is feted at the end with a scrumptious and lavish tea party. 

Goodall is a master watercolorist, and treats us to page after page of charming scenes in an English country village complete with thatched roofs, friendly wicket gates, and elegantly dressed frogs, squirrels, cats, and pigs. 

The Paddy books are some of our very favorites, read over and over and over again. Search for these in a large library or a used book site and enjoy them with preschoolers right on up.