To celebrate the publication of The Language of Money and Debt: A multidisciplinary approach (Eds. Annebelle Mooney and Evi Sifaki), I thought I’d upload a few illustrations from the picturebooks that I discuss in my chapter ‘Stories of Value: The Nature of Money in Three Classic British Picture Books’.
‘Stories of Value ‘ documents how Allan Ahlberg’s Master Money the Millionaire (1981), Mick Inkpen’s The Great Pet Sale (1998), and Shirley Hughes’ Dogger (1977) jostle with the logics of economics, markets, and money. Each book highlights phenomena long documented by economic sociologists and anthropologists, giving us some indication of how children’s economic socialization occurs, in part, through the reading moment. The economic world is ingrained in the stories that we tell. These stories are far from straightforward: notions of exchange, property, currency, and agency are tried on, explored, and challenged by the narrative’s protagonists in ways that lie much closer to our everyday experiences than do courses in financial literacy.
I will not repeat the chapter’s argument here, but offer instead a visual walk-through of some of the moments and concepts presented in the paper. A great thanks to Penguin Random House UK and Hachette’s Children’s Group for the permission to reproduce these illustrations here. Permissions from AP Watts at United Agents pending. Considering that picturebooks are rather short, I hesitated to include too many illustrations. Hopefully this will encourage you to find a copy in your local library, as each one is delightful in its own right!
Master Money the Millionaire
Master Money, a collaboration between Allan Ahlberg and André Amstutz, tells the tale of Master Money’s pecuniary fortunes and misfortunes. Despite his name, he was not always wealthy, nor are is parents. His pot of gold was found buried deep in the garden…
In a humorous reversal of their relationship, Master Money shares his wealth with his family by giving them an allowance. The text balloon puts the family’s response in the father’s mouth, anchoring the moment to the family’s acknowledgement and acceptance of Master Money’s position as provider. This reversal in caring roles challenges parental authority, but it also exposes the child to danger. He is kidnapped by the Creeps, a family whose appearance contrasts starkly with the Moneys’ airs of gentility.
The difference between the families is never so clear as in the description of how the Creeps spend their million pounds, each vignette highlighting the hedonistic quality of their consumption and contrasting them with Master Money’s ‘wiser’ purchases. Whereas Master Money had bought an entire sweet shop, Miss Creeps purchases a giant ice-cream cone. Whereas the Moneys bought a plane, a car, and a horse, Master Creep seems to have splurged on a joyride in the air. Whereas Master Money extended dinner invitations to his entire class, Mr. and Mrs. Creep can be seen enjoying a whole turkey with champagne and cigars by themselves. Master Creep’s plane even bears his name—perhaps a hint that his consumption is conspicuous, and therefore in bad taste?
The goods Master Money purchases for his family turn out to be highly fungible: they are investments, not expenditures. Highlighting their worth-in-themselves, each purchase is abstracted from any context and surrounded by whitespace. Moreover, Master Money organises dinner parties for his classmates and schoolteacher, making it a point to include them in his newfound comfort. Thus having fostered a caring social network, friends and family rally to search for Master Money when he disappears: the investment pays off.
They look “everywhere,” although it seems unlikely that Master Money would be hiding under a rock or in a school desk. This tongue-in-cheek nonsense highlights the efforts made to find him, but also their ineffectiveness. Master Money is returned upon disbursement of the ransom (gathered, painstakingly, by selling everything the Moneys own), and the kidnappers are inexplicably apprehended three weeks later by the police.
The Great Pet Sale
Picking up on nonsense, Mick Inkpen’s The Great Pet Sale is perhaps the most subversive of the three books discussed in the chapter. It details the journey of a boy protagonist through a pet store in which all pets are outrageously for sale (‘1p! I only cost 1p!’). Despite its apparent simplicity, it is packed with references to the dehumanizing forces of marketization and valuation, as well as the (sad) ridiculousness of promotional discourse.
These five animals share a perch, because they share the letter ‘p’. Categories are artificial constructions that allow us to make comparisons between and within them. Making comparisons in turn allows us to ascribe value, and to incorporate these things into a marketplace. Still, that doesn’t mean categories can’t be challenged. The platypus here is the most obvious ‘odd one out’: he sits slightly apart from the others on the next page, he is initially covered by a price-tag flap (lifted in the illustration above), and he is subjected to the curious gaze of his perch mates. Even they seem to feel this is a decidedly bizarre grouping: a neat and subtle subversion of the pricing discourse.
Until now, the story has been told from the boy’s perspective: what he sees is what we see. A rare moment that turns the gaze on him is when he responds to these experiences. Perhaps driven by moral outrage, the boy counts his coins, as expected from an economic actor-in-training. The amount is visually highlighted in the same manner as the price tags previously, reinforcing the numeric discourse. His actions, and the numbers, lend to a sense of rationality: the world is tidy when it is governed by these economic rules. But he turns this rationality to his advantage: he buys the entire store.
Instead of opting into—and making the most of—the market, Dogger (by Shirley Hughes) challenges its logic by strictly separating the realms of family and love from the realms of purchase and consumption. In Dogger, little Dave loses his favorite plush toy, and after a lot of agony, finds it on sale at the school fair:
I love the detail here. A “lucky dip” is 15p a try, second-hand clothes are “nearly new”: the fair is both festive and commercial–and a potential subject for a whole other paper on children’s fiction and promotional discourse. For now, note the colorfulness in this world of goods and experiences for sale. Here is Dogger:
Sporting a price tag, Dogger also wears the ghost of a smile. He has been valued, priced, propped up, and displayed amongst other discarded toys, but he has been found. The knowledge of Dave’s love makes him jump out of the line-up, and out of his miscategorization (he was not discarded, and he is not for sale by his rightful owner). A series of events ensue that not only prove frustrating to Dave, as his rights as Dogger’s owner are not recognized, but also undermine the power of money. In the end, it is his sister Bella’s sacrifice of the giant teddy she had won at a contest that secures the return of Dave’s beloved stuffed toy.
The children sleep blissfully in their shared familial space. Dave is reunited with Dogger, while Bella’s ‘1st’ prize badge is a reminder not only of her win, but also of her act of sisterly love. I suppose she’s winning at life.
There is still much to explore in the topic of socialisation through children’s literature, from studying parent-child reading interactions to analysing representations of the economic world. This piece, and the book chapter, don’t do justice to even these three picturebooks, let alone the entire category. But it’s a start!