Behind the Book: Shift Happens by J. Albert Mann

Teen readers are at a transitional point in their lives. For many, it will be when they earn their first paycheck (and have their first hands-on experience with taxes). Shift Happens: The History of Labor in the United States is an eye opening look at the history of work and unions in the US. Readers will appreciate the short chapters and relevant information while they learn about how the actions of workers, often children and teens, has shaped America.

You need to work to live.

That’s the truth for most people, and plenty of bosses have been abusing that truth for centuries.

Long before the first labor unions were formed, workers still knew what exploitation looked like. It looked like the enslavement of Black people. It looked like generations of children dying in dangerous jobs. It looked like wealthy people hiring private militaries to attack their employees.

But workers have always found a way to fight back. Arawak tribespeople resisted Columbus and his colonizers. Enslaved people led walkouts and rebellions. Textile workers demanded a wage that would let them have fun, not just survive. Miners died for the right to unionize. From 20,000 young seamstresses striking in the early 1900s to Uber drivers organizing for change today, people have learned we’re stronger when we are united.

Shift Happens is a smart, funny, and engaging look at the history of the worker actions that brought us weekends, pay equality, desegregation, an end to child labor, and so much more.

Dear Comrades, Friends, and Fellow Workers,  

When I turned 16, I got my first job. I worked at McDonald’s as a hostess where I was in charge of cleaning the lobby and the bathrooms.  

Are you right now thinking, ick?  

You shouldn’t be. I loved it. Every single minute of it. I made those plastic yellow booths gleam…even on gloomy days. And I often imagined people gasping in joy when they walked into my bathroom. I was, and am, very skilled at cleaning.  

Following my time in fast food, I went on to wait tables, teach children math in an afterschool program, enter data into financial systems, and write. At each of these jobs, I’ve had moments where I hoped people gasped in joy at the work I’d done. But I didn’t work for gasps. I worked for money. To live. Every worker needs to be paid.  

But how much should you make cleaning a bathroom?  

About the Author

J. Albert Mann is a disability activist and an award-winning author for young people. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults and is the partner liaison for the WNDB Internship Grant Committee. Her work has won the Massachusetts Book Award Honor, has received a Disability Visibility grant, was named both a Bank Street Best Book and a BCCB Blue Ribbon Book, and was selected for IBBY’s Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities. Born and raised in New Jersey, she now lives on a fishing boat in Boston Harbor.

Praise for Shift Happens

"Its edgy title may attract attention, but it’s the compelling narrative and enlightening content that will keep readers engaged from cover to cover. A recommended read for high school students and educators alike."
School Library Journal (starred review)

"In other hands, the snarky, conversational tone might feel like an adult’s overreach, but Mann’s simmering anger, careful deployment of swears, and clear passion for the working class will inspire readers just as much as the union leaders and organization efforts she covers."  
Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books (starred review)

"The short, engaging chapters keep the narrative moving along at a quick clip, and the conversational tone makes this a compelling reading that celebrates the ways unions have saved lives. Riveting, enlightening, infuriating, and timely: compulsory reading."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"The narrative’s laser focus on organizing heroes and essential employees, and the power of unions and striking workers to enact change, results in powerful storytelling."
Publisher's Weekly

"Unabashedly not a textbook, Mann's introduction to the history of labor is full of sharp, galvanizing points that will keep readers engaged and help them look critically at some of our entrenched systems."

The AI revolution is here—and Shift Happens is the book young readers absolutely need to understand how to fight back against the people who want to strip-mine their humanity for profit and call it progress.
— Martha Brockenbrough