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Books that Shaped Work in America

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 Jenesse Evertson and Jill Stefanovich

Jenesse Evertson and Jill Stefanovich
Owners, BBGB Tales for Kids, a children's bookstore in Richmond, Va.

Once upon a time, children’s books—especially those for very young readers—tended to focus on the specific and stereotypic roles people play at home, work or in the community; they illustrated probability and productivity. While people’s roles—and in particular their jobs—remain a source of fascination for young readers, many of today’s children’s books challenge readers to view them in a broader context; they emphasize possibility. Five examples of this shift include: 

Richard Scarry, What Do People Do All Day? (1968). This colorful classic first published in 1968 is still entirely relevant for children ages 3-5. After all, in order for children to imagine the possibilities, they need a starting point from which to understand the types of jobs people do, don’t they? Scarry puts an array of roles and characters on each page in an engaging and accessible way, helping wee ones understand different professions and how their role in the community.

Ian Falconer, Olivia (2000). This blockbuster picture book featuring a spirited female pig who dreams big (her sandcastle is the Empire State Building!) and embraces her individuality ushered in the millennium in style. It also set a new tone with its neutral color palette; rather than children identifying color with a character (begone pink for girls and blue for boys!), they are granted the space to imagine the ways they can create and recreate themselves. It’s just brilliant.

Mo Willems, I’m a Frog: An Elephant and Piggie Book (2013). We kowtow to Mr. Willems, a man who in one excellent series has shifted children’s perceptions of work from the what to the how. Each title centers on the necessity of collaboration and dialogue in problem solving, while also highlighting the play in all that work.

Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers, The Day the Crayons Quit(2013). One day, a boy opens that familiar green and yellow box to find out that its inhabitants are tired of being stereotyped and pigeon-holed. The personal pleas of those rebellious little crayons mix just the right amount of irreverence and indignation to ensure giggles as they reinforce the message that it’s important to “think outside the box.”

The Guinness Book of World Records (1956). The sheer size and shine of this book (oh, the draw of a foil cover!) highlights the magic of “maximalism” for anyone over the age of five, and has since its first publication in the US in 1956. While many remember marveling at the improbability and utter exoticness of featured feats, children today read it with an eye to their own “try this at home!” ideas. We love the sense of possibility this perennial favorite promotes, even as we lament the inevitable link to celebrity. Tis the times.

Jenesse Evertson and Jill Stefanovich are owners of “BBGB Tales for Kids,” a children’s bookstore in Richmond, Virginia. 

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