The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body

Macaulay, David

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

  • Date of entry: Feb-13-2009


This book in large-format (11 1/8  x  8 3/4 in.) is made up primarily of wonderful illustrations but there is also clear and clever text; both media clearly explain the structures and systems of the human body.  Although nominally listed as “Juvenile Literature,” The Way We Work is sophisticated and detailed enough to educate and entertain adult readers, without losing the interest of intelligent young readers.

The drawings, in pencil and watercolor, are dazzling: large, colorful, with a variety of layouts and perspectives. Many go across double-page spreads, and many include a witty image of one or more small observers. In “Mapping the Cortex,” for example (pp. 158-159), an enormous, multicolored brain takes up most of two pages; it is partially exploded into 11 areas, labeled by name and function, and coded (sensory, motor, or association). A tiny (one-inch) man below with a question mark over his head looks at a dangling rope (I think) hanging from the brain. A small text block fits in the lower left-hand corner.

The book is organized by seven chapters, each for a body system, such as “Let’s Eat” (digestive system), “Who’s in Charge Here?” (nervous system), and “Battle Stations” (immune system). While the parts of the body (anatomy) are clearly shown, the book stresses biological process (physiology), truly “the way we work,” and in considerable detail. In “Let’s Eat,” for example, there are 50 pages, starting from what foods we eat, our sense of smell, taste receptors, teeth, chewing muscles, salivary glands and saliva, the entire alimentary canal, including biochemical and molecular activity, the roles of pancreas, liver, and kidney, and urinary and fecal outputs.

Children of all ages will enjoy “Journey’s End,” which shows a gigantic rectum miraculously suspended over a cityscape, with dump trucks arriving below it to receive stupendous loads.  Indeed, there is much humor in the book, both in the drawings and in the text blocks. 



Young readers will probably not read this book of 336 pages start to finish but will likely dip into the parts that interest them especially. Sex, for example, is described in “Extending the Line,” which discusses the time span of human life. Although Macaulay and Walker do not discuss death, corruption, and/or embalming (another book?), they show conception, the embryo, lactation, and birth. 

Older readers may be surprised (and delighted?) at the clarity and specificity of biochemical reactions, RNA, proteins, antigens, ions, hormones such as glucagon, etc., all clearly explained and neatly illustrated.  This is a gorgeous book, with hundreds of illustrations in sumptuous color--a volume to keep on a coffee table for visiting and revisiting. 


Written with Richard Walker, an experienced science writer.  David Macaulay is well known for his detailed, witty, and imaginative illustrations in previous books such as Ship, Pyramid, Castle, Pyramid, and, parallel to this book, The Way Things Work.


Houghton Mifflin

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