The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

Why Yuval Noah Harari's new book for kids includes lessons on world history and corporations

Historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari’s new series covers world history and big issues in an accessible format, so that kids can become critical thinkers and participate in, and challenge the current-day discourse.

Author of Sapiens and Homo Deus recently launched the first in series of kids' books

Yuval Noah Harari's new book, Unstoppable Us: How Humans Took Over the World, aims to tell kids the story of humankind. (Submitted by Yuval Noah Harari)

Forget lions, tigers and bears: Yuval Noah Harari wants children to start thinking about corporations, money and power.

The historian, philosopher and nonfiction author is best known for his books like Sapiens and Homo Deus that have sold more than 40 million copies around the world.

Now, the public intellectual is turning his attention to a younger audience. 

His new book, Unstoppable Us: How Humans Took Over the World is part of a series for kids that tells the story of humankind.

Harari spoke with The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay about why he thinks it's important to write about the history of the world for the younger generation, and how they can use these lessons for change.

Here's part of their conversation.

Why do you think it's important for children to learn about these topics?

Kids basically, first of all, want to know who they are. And to know who you are, you need to know where you came from. And in most countries, kids mostly learned the history just of their people [and] their nation — which is important, but it's not really enough, because each of us is made of bits and pieces that came from all over the world for thousands and even millions of years. 

So if you like to play football or soccer, then it didn't come from Israel, [or] from Canada. It comes from England in the 19th century. So you have a bit of England in the 19th century in you.

Kids need to know how to beware of corporations much more than they need to know how to beware of lions or elephants.- Yuval Noah Harari

If you like to eat chocolate, then the Olmecs discovered chocolate for the first time, something like 4,000 years ago in Central America. So if you like chocolate, you have a bit of Olmec history in you.

And then if you go much, much deeper than that and think about our most basic emotions, like love and like fear, if you wake up in the middle of the night and you're afraid there is a monster under your bed, this is actually a memory from millions of years ago, when "monsters" did indeed come in the night to eat kids, when we lived in the African savannah. If you hear a noise in the middle of the night, it might be a lion that is coming to eat you.

So to understand who you really are, from the food you like to eat to your most basic emotions, you need to understand the big history of our species.

You said this thing about kids books being generally full of these unrealistic scenarios, like elephants wandering around the streets, whereas kids in real life interact with things like corporations.

It's so complicated to explain what corporations really are even to adults, not to mention to 10-year-old kids. But then the feeling was that we have to do it.

Because again, you have all these books about elephants and lions. And this is important, certainly, but how many times does a kid in Toronto and Montreal meet an elephant on the street?

In 2020, historian Yuval Noah Harari adapted his international bestseller Sapiens into a graphic novel, complete with superheroes, detectives and nods to reality TV. (Signal)

It's quite rare, but every day kids are interacting with corporations. I mean, Google is a corporation. TikTok is a corporation. McDonald's is a corporation. If they like a certain baseball team or hockey team, this is also a corporation.

Kids need to know how to beware of corporations much more than they need to know how to beware of lions or elephants. It's really essential knowledge for the 21st century.

How do you find that balance between making those ideas accessible while still providing the complexities these issues deserve?

That's the most difficult thing about the job. And I actually find that it's more difficult to write for kids than to write for adults.

Because when you write for adults about a complicated subject and you're not really sure what you want to say about it, you can hide it by using this very complicated theoretical abstract language — writing long sentences with big words. And then readers, if they don't really understand, they think it's their fault, that they are not smart enough or something.

With kids, this trick doesn't work. You have to speak in very simple terms to make it accessible. You can't use these big, abstract terms. 

What do you hope young people will do with the history lessons that you're providing in your book?

I don't want them to just take the book at face value. The book is first and foremost the book of questions. I want people to ask these questions like where did we come from? What is the source of our power? What is our responsibility to other animals?

Now the book also offers a lot of answers, but I hope that the people, that readers, that children will be skeptical about some of these answers. I mean, I don't know everything.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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