Chapter Book Review: The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill

Toothpaste MillionaireThe Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill

From Goodreads: Sixth-grader Rufus Mayflower doesn’t set out to become a millionaire. He just wants to save on toothpaste. Betting he can make a gallon of his own for the same price as one tube from the store, Rufus develops a step-by-step production plan with help from his good friend Kate MacKinstrey. By the time he reaches the eighth grade, Rufus makes more than a gallon — he makes a million! This fun, breezy story set in 1960s Cleveland, Ohio contains many real-life mathematical problems which the characters must solve to succeed in their budding business.

Happy Fourth of July. Here’s a book about the entrepreneurial spirit of the US for today. Considering the original publication date of this book, 1972, it’s surprising that one of the primary characters is African American. Kate MacKinstrey tells the story of how she and Rufus, two kids who didn’t quite fit in with their peers, became friends over making things and then started a business. Kate is new to town and is having trouble making friends until Rufus helps her clean up her spilled backpack one day on the way to school. She’s intrigued by his messenger bag he made for himself (and he offers to make her one as well).

This story has awesome all over it. It features a boy-girl friendship. Rufus is black and Kate is white. Kate isn’t into “girly” things and she starts up the business with Rufus. She helps make toothpaste, pack it up, and helps find a tube supplier and a factory to ramp up production. Rufus may have had the toothpaste formula idea, but Kate is as much of an entrepreneur as he is handling practical logistics. The kids also get to run around town by themselves! On bikes! I think it will seem extraordinary to kids these days, but also very enticing. I do wish that the story was more about Rufus. For example, I wish we knew why he choose Kate as a friend. He helps her and their friendship just starts up. It didn’t feel forced, but he just sort of assumes that after that point they are friends. Kate is grateful and takes it in stride. I am glad that on this cover Rufus is front and center.

I loved Rufus, he is so practical and straight forward. He starts the toothpaste production because he is convinced toothpaste companies are charging way too much and he could do it just as well for less and still make a profit. I do wonder if he falls into any stereotypes. Not only is he African American, but he also strikes me that he could have Asperger’s. I am not certain about that, but I wonder if he was supposed to be like one of those kids and if he is too much of a stereotype.

For a chapter book this one is on the higher end. In terms of interest I think kids from second to seventh grade would enjoy the story. I would recommend it for any elementary school library, but consider it if you have middle schoolers who are into inventing or need some lower reading level, high interest stories.