by Elaine Scott
I grew up in a family of bankers. Father, brother, aunt—seemed like everyone in my family worked in a bank. Debt, credit, accounts, collections—these topics were fodder for dinner table conversations. And like most adolescents who grew up in an era when the adults dominated the table talk, I was bored out of my mind. I also assumed everyone knew what I knew. I thought checks, balances, and overdrafts were part of everyone’s everyday conversation, right up there with politics, the neighbors, and what was going to happen over the weekend. It took me quite a while to figure out that wasn’t the case. I just didn’t think about it until I became a parent myself.
I remember my first astonished reaction when my then ten-year-old daughter asked me for some amount of money and I declined saying I didn’t have it. She countered with the suggestion I “write a check.” (This was back when we had the quaint custom of paying for groceries with a check and not a credit card.) I had to explain that checks were not the same thing as money itself—that there had to be enough money in the bank to cover a check. I assumed she knew that, but when I thought about it, how would she? We never talked about banking at our dinner table. Instead, conversation focused on her father’s swashbuckling adventures around the world in search of oil—or how her softball team was doing in the playoffs. She had no concept of how a checking account worked.
When this same child went off to college, I remember buying her a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “What do you mean I’m overdrawn? I still have checks!” across the front. She was not as amused as I. However, in one of those ironies that often happens, she actually became an accountant who supervises banking practices for the FDIC.
I think it was that early exchange with her that inspired the idea for Dollars & Sense. I knew that she couldn’t be the only pre-teen—or for that matter, adult—who didn’t understand how money, and therefore the economy, works. But how to make a potentially dull subject entertaining was the challenge.
As I began the text for Dollars & Sense, I chose to write informally and was delighted to see that the tone was matched with the droll illustrations done by David Clark. I particularly loved writing about one of our more colorful founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. However, as I wrote and researched in Texas, I had no idea Hamilton and the fiscal policies he began in the late eighteenth century, would dominate the cultural scene in the early twenty-first century—this time in a musical that bore his name! Money as a musical? Debt and dance steps? Rap and regulations? Who knew? Certainly not I.
The musical Hamilton covers many of the topics I write about in Dollars & Sense, but it’s not the first time money has been celebrated in song. In the book’s Introduction, I mention a line from a duet sung by Liza Minelli and Joel Grey in the 1972 classic film, Cabaret; “Money makes the world go around.” As I wrote, I had no idea that the musical Hamilton would become the most coveted ticket on Broadway. Apparently it isn’t that far-fetched to sing about money!
Of course I want kids to read about money, too. And I want teachers to use my book in their classrooms as they teach about our country’s economic and cultural development. I can also imagine how much fun it might be to use some ideas from my text and combine the information with snippets from the hip-hop score of Hamilton to drive a lesson home. In Hamilton, the song “Cabinet Battle #1” pits Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson against each other as they rap about the establishment of a national bank—a topic I cover in the book. How much fun would it be to have kids create a rap “duel” among themselves arguing the pros and cons of fiscal policy? If it can delight sophisticated Broadway audiences, it could delight energetic middle-schoolers, too.
I write about the early days of America when each colony issued its own currency. How about creating a rap arguing, “Our Money’s Better than Yours!”, or use the chapter that discusses the Great Depression and create a piece called “I’m Depressed!” I write about debt in the book, so perhaps students could rap about “There’s Good Debt and There’s Bad.” You get the idea…the possibilities are endless.
Hamilton has raised awareness of a crucial period in our history. It illuminates the humanity and the passion those first fiscal policy discussions raised among our founding fathers. It was that same kind of passion that animated my own father’s dinner table talk. It is the passion that led me to write Dollars & Sense, just as passion drove Lin-Manuel Miranda to bring Hamilton’s story to Broadway.
So money and music go together. I hope you’ll read (and maybe even rap) Dollars & Sense with your young audience. And please, let me know how it goes!
Elaine Scott is the author of several books, including Buried Alive!: How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep Under the Chilean Desert and When is a Planet Not a Planet? The Story of Pluto (Clarion). Her latest book is Dollars & Sense: A Kid’s Guide to Using—Not Losing—Money, illustrated by David Clark. Elaine lives in Houston, Texas.
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