The Stuff That Doesn’t Grow on Trees

October 2, 2014 § 5 Comments

"The History of Money" by Martin JenkinsOne of the most enjoyable afternoons I spent with my son this past summer had nothing to do with summer. It didn’t involve beaches or roller coasters or ice cream. It didn’t cost a cent, although it was all about money.

JP turned seven last week, and we had been telling him for awhile that we would begin giving him an allowance on his seventh birthday. Then, last June, it occurred to me that the kid had no practical knowledge of money, an inauspicious beginning to forging a lifetime relationship with the stuff that doesn’t grow on trees. I decided to make it my Goal of Summer 2014 to teach him, not only how to count and sort coins and bills, but also about how money came to exist in the first place—and how it has changed over time. Like most of my endeavors in parenting, this one started with a book.

The timing turned out to be perfect, because Candlewick happened to send me a copy of their newly published 52-page chapter book titled The History of Money: From Bartering to Banking (Ages 7-12), with text by Martin Jenkins and  cartoonish illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura. From page one, JP was riveted. The book reads as a kind of anthropological, time-travel narrative, beginning in the early age of man when “nobody had any money.” (Wait, there was a time when money didn’t exist?! I love observing these mind-blowing moments wash across my children’s faces, like when JP read The First Drawing and gleaned that something as natural-seeming as drawing had to be invented.) But it’s true: when nomadic people spent their entire lives moving around, they simply didn’t have the need or ability to amass heaps of stuff.

In the chapters that follow, we learn about the evolution of trading and bartering, which not only improved the quality of human life, but later led to the formation of number systems and the invention of writing (cue second mind-blowing moment); suddenly, it became critical to keep track of how many sheep you were owed. When a farmer’s crop was particularly weak and he couldn’t pay back his loan in good time, the concept of interest was born. And so it continued, with currency eventually replacing bartering, and metal coins replacing things like goats. The book takes us all the way through to modern banking and the cautionary chapter title, “In which we discover how easy it is for money to disappear.” (Ain’t that the truth, kid.)

"The History of Money" by Satoshi Kitamura

I can’t tell how much of the book JP grasped or retained, because there’s quite a bit of historical detail packed into each chapter (some of it perhaps unnecessary, although I’ve never been someone who needs to know the names of every pharaoh and Roman emperor, and I suppose there are some that would eat this up). What I can tell you is that he was fascinated. Each night he raced into bed to hear another chapter; and the illustrations kept him giggling and focused when the text got dense. I imagine this is a book we will read together every year, and that he will appreciate differently as he gets older and studies things like Ancient Empires and the Industrial Revolution.

This brings me back to our memorable summer afternoon, when Emily slept peacefully in her room, and I lay on JP’s bed, silently reading my own book (what?!). JP knelt on the floor next to his pile of piggy bank change: sorting it into piles, counting it, and marking his tallies on a sheet of paper. It was a rare, blissful experience of being both together and apart: each of us absorbed in our own work, yet appreciating what the other was doing. Occasionally, he’d whisper things like, “I can totally smell the metal on my hands!” and “Mommy, I am already over 100 pennies—can you believe it?” At one point, he asked me, “Are you totally loving your book?” (I was. Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson. Read it.) Later that day, we gathered up all the change and took it to a counting machine to see if JP’s math had been correct. It was only off by two cents.

Fast forward two months to last Saturday evening. After the birthday guests had left, after the presents had been opened and the trash thrown away, JP began to set the table for our post-party pizza. Suddenly, he paused and ran into the kitchen. “Do you know what is about to happen?” he asked. “Um, you’re about to set the table so we can eat pizza?” “No! You are about to give me my first allowance.” “Oh, right!” And then my husband and I each gave JP a dollar and watched him disappear upstairs to put it in the wallet that he had purchased over the summer with the contents of his piggy bank. When he returned, he had a look of great solemnity. After all, he is following in a vast, impressive, and complicated legacy.

Another Favorite About the History of Money:
The Story of Money, by Betsy Maestro & Giulio Maestro (Ages 7-10)


Review copy from Candlewick publishing.

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