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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Way We Work, written and illustrated by David Macaulay. Houghton, Thomas Allen. 2008. $39.95 ages 10 and up

"Our body may be the first and is certainly the most remarkable thing we learn to take for granted. Because it works twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and makes only a few routine demands on our schedules, it's hardly surprising that we're much more familiar with its outside appearance than we are with what's going on inside. That is, of course, until something goes wrong. But why wait for trouble to stimulate curiosity? Each of us owns and inhabits an exceptional example of biological engineering and one that deserves to be understood and celebrated."

It was that curiosity that led this remarkable artist to spend six years of his life 'getting it right'. He did so through research, attending classes, spending time in hospitals and hospital operating rooms in an effort to do just what he did...create this amazing 336 page book that celebrates what makes each of us tick! It is clear that for David Macaulay nothing beats the body for interest and intrigue. Because there is no beginning, middle and end to the body, it was difficult to determine where to begin. After some deliberation he decided to start with the building blocks and move on from there.

In Building Life, the first chapter, he describes our most basic structure...the cell. All living things are made of vast numbers of them. In clear language and with detailed drawings, he explains how cells become the tissues and systems that make us who we are.

I love the chapter titles that follow: Air Traffic Control, Let's Eat, Who's In Charge Here?, Battle Stations, Moving On and Extending the Line. His idea in writing the book, beyond informing himself about something he had long ignored, was 'to take readers on a quick tour of their own bodies, beginning with an explanation of the body’s basic cellular structure and including all the major physiological systems and processes'. That he has done!

And he adds: 'And just as a good tour guide knows when to crack a joke or tell an amusing anecdote, I tried to inject a little humor here and there. Granted, that may not be the way they do it at Harvard Medical School, but then The Way We Work isn’t intended as a how-to guide for doctors.' That humor is evident throughout and will take some keen observation to catch it all. Lively color captures our attention and scientific accuracy of the many drawings.

As the food reaches the end of the small intestine, the body showing where it is located suggests to the children following the progress of the waste that they might want to switch to another route before reaching the non-return valve. A man, phone to ear, stands at the auditory canal asking, 'can you hear me now?' A skull, searching for beauty in a hand-held mirror, asks, 'am I still the fairest in the land?'

The final image shows a newborn crowning. We see only the top of the head and know that life begins again, returning us to the beginning of the book to begin our journey just as this tiny babe begins his. Macaulay wants his young readers to know that the body is a machine...amazing and complicated. He uses that idea to present clear, concise illustrations to impart that belief. He does it with his usual panache and adults who share this book will find themselves learning a lot they did not previously know and returning time and again for further insights. Bravo!

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