Capturing the “Economic Imagination”: A Treasury of Children’s Books to Meet Content Standards

Abbejean Kehler

Using literature in any form in the classroom is motivationa#151;children love stories. As they read or listen, they draw from the full library of their mind’s eye a boundless array of images, memories, and feelings. As the storyteller unlocks the door of their imaginations, they become “masters of the universe.”

Many popular children’s books impart a sense of how pervasive economics and economics decision making is in our lives. They also help children develop their “economic imaginations”—the ability to place themselves in the story and empathize with a character’s economic experience. As Hendricks and colleagues have written, “by reading these stories, young people can also develop comprehension of the difficult choices faced by their families.” Moreover, the “wide variety of human concerns that children’s stories attempt to deal with can help generate a desire to study basic facts about economically significant issues and problems.” 1

For these reasons, many notable children’s books will help students understand the Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics.2 We’re not likely to see the actual economic terms we’re looking for in the story, but if we question and probe carefully, we can find the economic concepts in the context and significance of the situation. And we can help students connect their new knowledge with the story.

Each of the 16 Content Standards for grades K-4 are listed below, followed by suggestions for stories that help meet those standards. (Content Standards 12, 17, 18, and 20 are omitted as they do not include appropriate benchmarks for elementary grades.)

Content Standard 1

Productive resources are limited. Therefore, people cannot have all the goods and services they want; as a result, they must choose some things and give up others.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1985

> A satisfied want leads to another want and another!

The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins. New York: Mulberry Books, 1986

> Once again, cookies illustrate an economic concept—scarcity and choice. Be sure to pause before the final two pages when grandma appears with lots more cookies.

Charlie Needs A Cloak by Tomie dePaola. Aladdin Paperbacks; Simon & Schuster, 1973

> To meet his need for this simple article of clothing, Charlie must make it for himself. Read how he does it.

Content Standard 2

Effective decision making requires comparing the additional costs of alternatives with the additional benefits. Most choices involve doing a little more or a little less of something; few choices are all-or-nothing decisions.

Something Special for Me by Vera B. Williams. New York: Green Willow Books, 1983

> Rosa decides on a birthday present to buy with all the coins saved in the money jar. She has many alternative choices, but selects a present that will benefit everyone. Colorfully illustrated.

Content Standard 3

Different methods can be used to allocate goods and services. People, acting individually or collectively or through government, must choose which methods to use to allocate different kinds of goods and services.

The Muffin Muncher by Stephen Cosgrove. Los Angeles: Price Stern Sloan, 1978

> A dragon threatens to burn down the drawbridge if the villagers don’t leave him a pile of muffins each time they cross the bridge. Soon, the villagers run out of the resources they need to produce the muffins. But the dragon himself saves the day: he comes up with a new production plan that yields enough muffins for all to share.

Content Standard 4

People respond predictably to positive and negative incentives.

Paperboy by Mary Kay Kroeger. New York: Clarion Books, 1996

> Willie Brinkman is proud to be helping his family during tough financial times. But he has a tough time himself: he spends an evening trying to sell newspapers carrying news that nobody wants to read. His fortunes improve, however, when he identifies an opportunity to sell extra papers on a choice corner.

Content Standard 5

Voluntary exchange occurs only when all participating parties expect to gain. This is true for trade among individuals or organizations within a nation, and among individuals or organizations in different nations.

Alexander Who Used To Be Rich Last Sunday by Judith Viorst. New York: Aladdin Books, 1978

> A wonderful illustration of exchange. Be sure to point out that Alexander willingly traded his coins for the items he wanted because he expected to be pleased with his purchases.

Content Standard 6

When individuals, regions, and nations specialize in what they can produce at the lowest cost and then trade with others, both production and consumption increase.

Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall. USA: Puffin Books, 1979

> In this Caldecott Medal winner, each member of a family works to produce something the father can trade at Portsmouth market—a lesson in specialization.

Here Comes the Mystery Man by Scott Russell Sanders. New York: Bradbury Press, 1993.

> The mystery man is a traveling peddler who specializes in bringing goods—and news—from faraway places.

Content Standard 7

Markets exist when buyers and sellers interact. This interaction determines market prices and thereby allocates scarce goods and resources.

Market Days: From Market to Market Around the World by Madhur Jaffrey USA: BridgeWater Books, 1995

> This colorful travelogue gives students a glimpse of the wares sold at marketplaces around the world, many of which add choices to our day.

Content Standard 8

Prices send signals and provide incentives to buyers and sellers. When supply or demand changes, market prices adjust, affecting incentives.

The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972

> In this instructive classic, 12-year-old Rufus Mayflower is upset when he discovers how much a tube of toothpaste costs. Convinced that he can produce a cheaper product, he does, becoming a millionaire in the process.

Content Standard 9

Competition among sellers lowers costs and prices, and encourages producers to produce more of what consumers are willing and able to buy. Competition among buyers increases prices and allocates goods and services to those people who are willing and able to pay for them.

The Milkman’s Boy by Donald Hall. USA: Walker Publishing Company, 1997

> What was it like to run a family milk delivery business where everyone had to work hard and contribute? Children will get a glimpse of old-fashioned house-to-house delivery in this story of the Graves family. Family members must overcome competition from other dairies and face challenges in supplying milk to their customers.

Content Standard 10

Institutions evolve in market economies to help individuals and groups accomplish their goals. Banks, labor unions, corporations, legal systems, and not-for-profit organizations are examples of important institutions. A different kind of institution, clearly defined and well-enforced property rights, is essential to a market economy.

Count Your Money with the Polk Street School by Patricia Reilly Giff. New York: Dell Publishing, 1994

> Ms. Rooney’s class learns about money, spending, and saving, and—along the way—about lending, saving for a class trip, and working together. Using the game board and instructions that come with this neat book, students might explore where Polk Street children can save their money—in a piggy bank or a real bank, for example.

Content Standard 11

Money makes it easier to trade, borrow, invest, and compare the value of goods and services.

Bunny Money by Rosemary Wells. New York: Dial Books, Penguin USA, 1997

> Max and Ruby go shopping with the precious pocket money they’ve saved up. So many choices! One of their first choices gets them into trouble and separates them from some of their savings.

If You Made a Million by David M. Schwartz. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

> Again, so many choices! Authentic pictures of coins and dollars accompany this lesson in the ways people can use money.

Content Standard 13

Income for most people is determined by the market value of the productive resources they sell. What workers earn depends, primarily, on the market value of what they produce and how productive they are.

Tops & Bottoms by Janet Stevens. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995

> A Caldecott Medal winner, this clever tale tells of a Hare and a Bear who join forces to produce food for their families. Poor bear gets the raw end of the deal, however, as Hare first asks Bear whether he wants the tops or the bottoms of the plants which the Hare family will tend. When Bear chooses tops, Hare and family plant fruits and vegetables that grow underground. When Bear asks for the bottoms, Hare produces things that grow above ground leaving Bear with inedible roots. Finally, Bear wakes up (literally) and realizes that he had better plant and tend to his own produce instead of sleeping away his days.

Content Standard 14

Entrepreneurs are people who take the risks of organizing productive resources to make goods and services. Profit is an important incentive that leads entrepreneurs to accept the risks of business failure.

The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). New York: Random House, 1961

> Sylvester McMonkey McBean sneaks into the Sneetches’ world with his Star-Off machine and keeps raising his prices for applying and removing stars on their bellies. Most teachers use this Dr. Seuss parable to talk about getting along with others. But with its entrepreneur, consumers, and brazen profit motive, as well as a good and a service, the story also lends itself nicely to economics lessons. And it’s told with characteristic Dr. Seuss rhyme and wisdom.

Content Standard 15

Investment in factories, machinery, new technology, and the health, education, and training of people can raise future standards of living.

Uncle Jed’s Barbershop by Margaret King Mitchell. New York: Simon & Schuster Books, 1993

> This is a wonderful story of how an African American family saves up to fulfill the uncle’s dream of opening a fancy barbershop. Point out that Uncle Jed is making an investment, discuss why it’s more efficient for him to have his own shop than to make “house calls,” and explore whether his standard of living might be higher now that his traveling time isn’t cutting into his barbering time.

Content Standard 16

There is an economic role for government to play in a market economy whenever the benefits of a government policy outweigh its costs. Governments often provide for national defense, address environmental concerns, defend and protect property rights, and attempt to make markets more competitive. Most government policies also redistribute income.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). New York: Random House, 1971

> A favorite Dr. Seuss story in many classrooms, this classic gives students the opportunity to discuss why it might be necessary to band together as a community and draw up some rules to protect the environment.

Content Standard 19

Unemployment imposes costs on individuals and nations. Unexpected inflation imposes costs on many people and benefits some others because it arbitrarily redistributes purchasing power. Inflation can reduce the rate of growth of national living standards, because individuals and organizations use resources to protect themselves against the uncertainty of future prices.

Apple Picking Time by Michele Benoit Slawson. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1994

> To understand unemployment, many students first must understand employment and why someone would want to hire an individual. This story of Anna, who helps her family with the apple harvest, is a perfect vehicle for this lesson. Point out that Anna is working, that she expects to be paid for her work at the end of the day, that she sets an ambitious goal of filling up an entire bin by herself, and that everyone congratulates her when she meets her goal.

All these books introduce children to new ideas, individuals, and experiences. But they bring more than just enjoyable stories and characters; they provide economic role models, and they present alternative solutions to economic choices and problems that people face all the time. As Day and colleagues have said, “as economic concepts are taught within the context of literature, students realize that economics is a very real part of life around them.”3


1. R. Hendricks, A. Nappi, G. Dawson, and M. Mattila, Learning Economics Through Children’s Stories (New York: Joint Council on Economic Education, 1986).

2. National Council on Economic Education (NCEE), Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics (New York: NCEE, 1997).

3. H. Day, M. Foltz, K. Heyse, C. Marksbary, and M. Sturgeon, Teaching Economics Using Children’s Literature (Indianapolis: Indiana Department of Education, 1997.)

About the Author
Abbejean Kehler is President of the Ohio Council on Economic Education and Director of the Central Ohio Center for Economic Education, College of Education, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.