The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill


Posted on September 10, 2017 1:06:35 AM UTC
One School One Book, Review

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Title: The Toothpaste Millionaire
ISBN: 9780618759255
book cover

Even though we know it is not a very good measure of future success or fulfillment, our society still places a lot of emphasis on our children’s test scores and grades. In fact, in this year alone, both my 3rd grader and my 8th grader will take at least four different standardized tests (and as many as eight!). These tests are intended to measure aptitude in math, reading, science, writing and other “core subjects.” Is there overlap between these tests? Very likely, yes. Do we need to have different tests over the same content for national, state and district entities to measure? Evidently. But that’s a soapbox for another day. While core knowledge is important, I want my kids (and yours, too) to learn about grit and determination. I want them to understand that creativity is not always about art or music, but also problem-solving and innovation. I want them to be able to identify opportunities that interest them, and to believe that the only true failure is in not trying at all. Perhaps above all else, I want them to be passionate and compassionate, at the same time. As a lead for our elementary school’s One School One Book (a PTO project), I am always looking for books that meet our criteria – not an easy task. I read The Toothpaste Millionaire, by Jean Merrill, as a kid, and remember enjoying it thoroughly! I ordered a copy earlier this summer and re-read it, hoping to find the same magic I felt reading it for the first time. Originally published in 1972, the story is told by Kate MacKinstrey, a 12-year old sixth grader who begins the book as the new kid in town. She doesn’t have an easy time making new friends, even though she knows “that if you want to make friends, you have to be friendly. And I tried.” Kate shares a few of her attempts (that seemed to fail), and – 2017 SLIPPERY SLOPE WARNING! – concludes, “Maybe they didn’t like apples or were tired of playing badminton. But I had the feeling it was that they didn’t want to get involved with me. Maybe because I was white.” At any rate, soon Kate meets a friendlier classmate, Rufus Mayflower, who also happens to be black. Kate, in the book, says, “First, I’ll tell you how Rufus and I got to be such good friends, since I’m white and he’s black, and this seems to surprise some people.” If it sounds like race is a major theme in this story, well, it might be. Is it introduced appropriately, presented in an honest and open kind of way? For sure in a 1972-kind of way, but would it be considered offensive today? As someone who struggled with math, I still love how the author includes it so realistically in the story. So many kids (and adults!) wonder how they are going to use various concepts in real life, and this book illustrates several of them (along with other problem-solving skills). For example, Rufus stirs up a batch of “toothpaste” in his kitchen, then has to figure out how many tubes it would fill; he and Kate consider a few different ideas (squeezing out one tube of regular toothpaste into a measuring cup, packing his mixture into a cake pan, molding a regular full tube of toothpaste into a square shape) before coming up with an answer. This type of scenario is replayed several times throughout the story, without sounding too “math preach-y”. So I guess this book is a little bit common core, after all. So, will we use it for One School One Book? I plan to present it our committee and see what they think – but what do you think? What would you do?