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Financial Literacy through Economic Narratives (August 2015): Financial Narratives for Children

By Roark Mulligan

Financial Narratives for Children

As children read, they not only develop literacy skills but also learn various concepts, among them economic concepts, which are often depicted in children’s and young adult literature.  The number of picture books that explore economic principles is so great that only a few can be mentioned.  Though imaginative, these works provide realistic dramatizations of monetary exchanges.  For example, Amy Axelrod’s Pigs Will Be Pigs presents a lesson on excess consumption, and Geraldine McCaughrean’s One Bright Penny helps children learn the value of money and exchange.  Laura Ingalls Wilder’s picture book Going to Town (which was adapted from her other works) places the reader in a barter economy in which economic interdependence binds members of a community.  Tomie dePaola’s Charlie Needs a Cloak and Lauren Mills’s The Rag Coat are entertaining stories that focus on needs and resources, as does dePaola’s Strega Nona’s Harvest, which presents abundance as an essential economic principle.

Of all the picture books focusing on barter, needs, and interdependence, Elsa Beskow’s classic Pelle’s New Suit is unique in revealing the relationship of resources, production, needs, labor, and barter.  Other picture books beautifully explore labor issues, dramatizing the connection between work and money.  Among the many in this category are H. A. Rey’s Curious George Takes a Job, which connects labor and production; Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, which offers a profound contemplation of the difference between what is given and what is earned; Marc Brown’s Arthur’s Pet Business, which helps young readers imagine the difficulties of running a small business; and Emily Arnold McCully’s The Bobbin Girl, which explores child labor.

Among the picture books that address money and saving directly are Stan and Jan Berenstain’s The Berenstain Bears’ Dollar$ and $en$e, and The Berenstain Bears’ Trouble with Money.  In fact, the Berenstains have written a book on every economic principle that one might imagine.  Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter: Just Saving My Money lauds the power of saving, and Judith Viorst’s Alexander, Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday highlights the dangers of not savingBonnie Worth’s One Cent, Two Cent, Old Cent, New Cent employs Dr. Seuss characters to explain monetary history in a simple, entertaining way.

For upper elementary, middle, and high school students, there are a growing number of chapter books and young adult novels that touch on economic themes—and adults enjoy many of these books, too.  Financial narratives for the young began appearing more than 150 years ago, just after the Civil War.  The most influential works were Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick titles, rags-to-riches novels that connected economic success and moral behavior.  Among more recent books, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory explores similar themes, considering poverty, competition, and economic success as adjuncts to moral behavior.  Richard Peck’s Amanda Miranda raises class issues, depicting economic struggles that end in redemption.

A number of multicultural novels for young adults explore economic themes in ways that go beyond early immigrant narratives.  For example, Francisco Jiménez’s Breaking Through portrays the struggle of illegal immigrants in California, and Chi Fa Lu’s memoir Double Luck: Memoirs of a Chinese Orphan, written with Becky White, traces the rise of a young Chinese immigrant.  Pam Munoz Ryan’s novel Esperanza Rising explores issues of economic displacement, as the main character falls from an elite economic class in Mexico to a working class in California, where she must struggle to rise again.

Other young adult novels develop entrepreneurial themes, revealing the connection of risk and wealth.  For example, in Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, children learn about outsourcing labor as Tom convinces others to do his work.  In the best-selling chapter book Freckle Juice, author Judy Blume humorously portrays the social cost of business fraud, and Doug Cooney’s The Beloved Dearly focuses on a young tycoon who starts a pet-funeral business.

In recent years, dystopian novels for young readers have flourished.  These works present economic problems that affect the readers’ lives.  For example, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and the two subsequent books in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, depict an unjust world of haves and have-nots.  In this dystopian setting, the protagonist must struggle to survive, to protect loved ones, and to change the system.  In Neal Shusterman’s dystology Unwind, UnWholly, UnSouled, and UnDivided, the author renders a sinister portrait of a world in which teenagers are dissected for parts.  Among nonfiction works is Russell Freedman’s Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade against Child Labor, which explores the abuse of children as cheap labor.  In a more uplifting work, Elizabeth Winthrop’s Counting on Grace, the protagonist and her best friend must leave school to work as doffers on their mothers’ looms in the mill.  In Gordon Korman’s Swindle and other books in this series, a con man cheats children in an unfair exchange, presenting the reader with economic warnings.

A number of nonfiction books for young adults directly address financial matters.  Among these are Pat Smith and Lynn Roney’s Wow the Dow!: The Complete Guide to Teaching Your Kids How to Invest in the Stock Market and Mark Victor Hansen’s The Richest Kids in America: How They Earn It, How They Spend It, How You Can Too.  In Rich Dad, Poor Dad for Teens: The Secrets about Money—That You Don’t Learn in School!, a work that is part of his popular “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” series, Robert Kiyosaki advocates a very specific method for wealth accumulation: spend less than you earn.  The efficacy of these books in teaching economic principles depends, of course, on their ability to capture the reader’s interest, but their popularity shows that nonfiction works can appeal to young readers, too.

Works Cited