Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Book Review: The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill (1972)

Upset by the high cost of toothpaste, Rufus Mayflower, an enterprising sixth grader, decides to start making his own. Once consumers realize he is able to make a gallon of his homemade toothpaste for the cost of a single tube at the supermarket, business really takes off. As the demand for Rufus's toothpaste increases, he encounters a number of challenges, all of which he is able to solve with perseverance and ingenuity. The story is narrated by Rufus's friend, Kate, who, along with her classmates, solves math problems based on the growth of Rufus's business, modeling for readers how to calculate Rufus's costs, profits, etc.

This book is certainly a gift to anyone trying to teach a reluctant math learner. It shows exactly how math is used in practical ways in everyday business dealings, and it makes the math appealing by surrounding it with a compelling story. It also teaches kids how businesses are formed and how they run without bogging them down in a lot of details that sound boring or tedious.

But while this is one of the appealing aspects of the book, it's not the only one. This is not just a 90-page math problem. Rather, it is an engaging story, told by a believable and relatable narrator, Kate, who helps the reader develop feelings of awe and respect for Rufus and his capabilities. Because Kate does not have Rufus's knack for running a business, she has many of the same questions the reader might ask, and she is able to act as a bridge between Rufus's genius and the reader's own lack of sophistication. The story as a whole also empowers kids to think of themselves as innovators and creators and debunks the idea that only adults can make a difference.

Newer books have told stories with similar premises (Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen, Frindle by Andrew Clements, The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, etc.) but The Toothpaste Millionaire told it first and best, in my opinion. Another similar book, Henry Reed, Inc. (1958) by Keith Robertson, would also make a great read-alike for this book, but even Henry's research company in that story doesn't result in earning a million dollars!  The Toothpaste Millionaire would make a great read-aloud for a wide range of ages; readers well beyond the age range of the intended middle grade audience can also get something out of it.  I'll definitely be reading this book again with my kids in a few years!

No comments:

Post a Comment