Title: The Toothpaste Milionaire
Author: Jean Merrill
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Economics, Inventions, Acceptance
Age Range: 3rd-6th Grade
Sixth-grader Kate is feeling a little lonely at her new school in East Cleveland-until she meets Rufus, a 12-year old inventor. She and Rufus become fast friends-even though it is 1972, and he is black and she is white. While running errands for his mom, Rufus is appalled by the high price of toothpaste. Sure that he can make it for less, he invents his own toothpaste recipe and starts selling it in baby food jars. And that is the beginning of a lighthearted story about how Rufus became a millionaire-and changed the lives of Kate and her classmates.
This book, originally published in 1972, was re-released in 2006. When I started reading it, I couldn't figure out why the fact that Kate was white and Rufus was black was a big deal, since it didn't appear to be a historical fiction novel. Well, I finally thought to look at the copyright date, which explained a lot. I mention it now both so that you won't have the same confusion if you read it (though you are all probably way smarter than me!), and so that you will understand why I added acceptance to the list of themes for this book. Even though the race thing is a pretty minor aspect of the book, kids in 2012 may need some context about why Kate makes a thing out of the fact that before she moved to Cleveland she'd never met a black person, or why Hector, the factory manager, keeps asking if people discriminate.
What this book really excels at is explaining basic business practices, and how the price of goods is determined. Rufus invents a product, starts making it at home and selling it. When the business grows, he adds employees, who he pays in stock in the company. When the company gets bigger, he finds a manager, gets a business loan, buys a factory, makes commercials-and almost drives the big companies out of business. In the process, he shows that you can still make money without jacking up prices, which is a lesson that is still relevant today, even if the race relations of the book feel dated. Rufus's business model basically shows how you can run a successful business based on principles of fairness and respecting your workers, even if it means making a smaller profit for yourself. Again, a lesson that some of our largest corporations could learn.