The Barter System in Children’s Literature

Linda Leonard Lamme

A barter economy may sound like an old-fashioned idea, a system used before we had a national currency. Yet, in many parts of the world today, economic life does not revolve around currency. And there is a move worldwide to reinstate barter economics, for example, on the Internet. allows members to barter online and is especially established for business-to-business e-commerce.

Bartering and trading networks exist throughout the world. According to the International Reciprocal Trade Association, international barter currently accounts for more than $10 billion in world trade.1 Members, whose skills and products are listed in a directory, make exchanges. These swaps are recorded as credits that can be spent on other goods and services within the network. Contributing services to the network pays debts. Thirty U.S. cities and towns issue local currency that works much the same way and can only be earned and spent within the townís borders. One purpose behind such local economies is self-reliance.2

Overseas, barter systems thrive. In Brazil, Atwood Richards, the worldís largest barter company, is looking for deals because the economy is beset with high inflation and high unemployment and therefore has much unsold merchandise. Atwoodís special currency allows companies to obtain supplies in return for a variety of services and products.3 In Argentina, 120,000 members of the Global Barter Network take vacations throughout the country, paying for the trips with ìcreditsî earned by goods or labor.4 Many cultures, especially nomadic ones, continue to barter, trading what they have trapped, raised, or created for what they need.

Children in all cultures tend to barter naturally, trading Pokemon cards, marbles, and other collectable items. They understand the feelings of disappointment when a trade does not go as well as they had expected, or the excitement that comes from acquiring a prized item. Using this natural inclination to barter for what they want or need, children can be led to learn about barter economies on a larger scale. It seems important that elementary school students learn about how the barter system works for both historical and contemporary reasons. A valuable resource for teaching children about bartering is childrenís literature. In several recently published picture books, story characters barter as a process of acquiring something they need.


Informal Bartering Experiences

An effective way to begin a unit of study on the barter system is to share Galimoto by Karen Lynn Williams. In this story, set in Malawi, seven-year-old Kondi barters away his treasured possessions in order to obtain wire from which he makes a popular type of push toy called a galimoto. Kondiís collection, which he keeps in an old shoebox, includes things he has created: a ball made of old plastic bags tightly wrapped with string, a knife made from a piece of a tin can, and a dancing man made from dried cornstalks. Kondi labors to find enough wire to complete his galimoto, trading away his homemade possessions. Bartering in general is an empowering activity. Instead of bemoaning the fact that he doesnít have enough wire, Kondi takes action and solves his problem. In the end, Kondi proudly shows his galimoto truck to his friends.

The barter system is an economic system used in many developing countries. In several stories about overseas cultures, people barter for goods and services that they need. For example, Zolani, who lives on the coast of the Transkei in South Africa, walks with his mother on a long journey to his grandmotherís house in Over the Green Hills. Along the route Zolaniís mother trades a bundle of firewood for some dried fish from a peddler in a donkey cart. In a similar way, in Desert December, an old man asks Seth to transport him to a farmhouse on his donkey cart and in return, the man gives him a piece of veldkos, a dried, sweet desert squash. Later a miner who is walking asks Seth for water, and in return gives him a honey-colored rock with copper speckles in it. When people travel in rural areas, opportunities exist to exchange goods and services. These exchanges are informal, usually with one person asking another for a favor and giving a present in return.

In Island Christmas, Rosie offers Sugar Cane Man some sorrel fruit in a bucket in exchange for a piece of sugar cane. The Sugar Cane Man helps Rosie peel red sorrel petals off the fuzzy green seeds. Afterwards they sit on the steps sucking on two sweet sugarcanes, poking their canes in the pail of water that draws out the juice of the red sorrel petals. These informal and impromptu barter experiences are very similar to those that American children have as they trade small possessions with their friends in the school yard or at home on the back steps.


Barter in Rural Economies

Other stories go into slightly more detail on how families depend on bartering at a market in order to supply their needs. These rural families spend a long time, sometimes up to a year, preparing for a trip to market where they will exchange their wares for goods and supplies to last them another year. Books from two different cultures provide examples. In both, young people travel for the first time with their parents on their long journey to a market. In Caravan, ten-year-old Jura accompanies his father on a caravan 125 miles across the Pamir Mountains in Afghanistan to a bazaar in the city. Jura carefully tends the camels and watches his father trade pelts and furs for grain. In Waira’s First Journey, Waira, an Aymara Indian, travels with her parents to market in the Bolivian altiplano, visiting relatives along the way. It is a long trip during which her father and mother explain the history and traditions of the tribe. Her family barters its dried potatoes, wool, maize, and dried fish, for fruit, pottery, and tools at the market.

The Bartering Process

A story that focuses entirely on the bartering process is Saturday Sancocho. During her weekly visits with her grandparents Maria Lili cooks sancocho, a stew made with chicken. One Saturday her grandfather announces, ìThere is no money for sancocho, not even a penny to buy the vegetables, let alone the chicken. All we have is a dozen eggs.î Her grandmother declares that they will make the sancocho with the eggs! She and Maria head for the market where they barter one item for another until they finally acquire all the ingredients needed for sancocho. A recipe is included on the last page of the book. The author has told me that this story is based upon her own Saturday visits with her grandparents in Columbia.

A short nonfiction book on the topic of bartering is From Gold to Money. This book describes the evolution of currency: how people gradually switched from the barter system to trading with pieces of gold, which were eventually marked with their weight and became coins. This information helps students understand why today the barter system is used less than it once was.


Curriculum Applications

There are many sources of information about bartering on the Internet and in books. Students can explore the many different facets of the topic as part of a history curriculum, whether they are learning about colonial America or ancient Egypt. They can gather and share information on places where bartering occurs and the different types of commodities that are bartered. Students might also write about their own experiences with bartering their possessions.

Students need to apply what they are learning. Students might set up a bartering exchange within their own classroom or school, or volunteer their services in exchange for donations to a worthwhile volunteer organization. For example, deaf- and hearing-impaired students at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind participated in a bartering project in which they performed chores in exchange for food that was donated to charity.5

Bartering is an economic and social enterprise that has a long history and promises to have a long future. There are a wide variety of forms of bartering, from informal exchanges between individuals to more formal exchanges in markets or on the Internet. There are many reasons why people barter—for enjoyment, out of necessity, and to reduce the costs of goods and services. Because bartering occurs across cultures, the topic can foster positive attitudes toward people of different cultures. These are only a few of the reasons why a study of the barter system can benefit young people today.


Childrenís Books

Haarhoff, Dorian. Desert December. Ill. Leon Vermeulan. New York: Clarion, 1991.

Isadora, Rachel. Over the Green Hills. New York: Greenwillow, 1992.

Joseph, Lynn. An Island Christmas. Ill. Catherine Stock. New York: Clarion, 1992.

McKay, Lawrence, Jr. Caravan. Ill. Darryl Ligasan. New York: Lee and Low Books, 1995.

Mitgutsch, Ali. From Gold to Money. Ill. M. Reidel, A. Fuchshuber, and F. Hogner. New York: Lerner, 1985.

Topooco, Eusebio. Waira’s First Journey. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1987.

Torres, Leyla. Saturday Sancocho. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1995.

Williams, Karen Lynn. Galimoto. Ill. Catherine Stock. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1990.



1. Tony Wanless, ìBarter Reborn in E-Commerce,î Calgary Herald (August 12, 1999).

2. Marshall Glickman, ìMaking Money: Local Currencies and Bartering Networks bring Economics Home,î Environment Magazine 9, no. 2 (1998): 44-48.

3. Sergio R. Bustos, ìThe Buzzards Circle,î Latin Trade, 7, no. 5 (July 29, 1999): 34.

4. Marcela Valente, ìDevelopment ñ Argentina: Barter System Makes a Comeback,î Inter Press Services (July 29, 1999).

5. Margaret Robison and Paula K. Cash, ìStudents Discover the Value of Bartering,î Perspectives in Education and Deafness 14, no. 4, (1996): 16-18.


Linda Leonard Lamme is a professor at the School of Teaching and Learning at the University of Florida in Gainesville.