A special after-school installment of Adjusted for Inflation, as part of this series about youth.
You probably haven’t been a kid for some years now. Maybe five years, or maybe many more. But whatever your age, there comes the moment of nostalgia sneaking up on you, and you remember that treehouse you had, or that clearing in the woods where all the kids played, which maybe you called something fanciful like Terabithia, or that playground with the monkey bars that served as the spaceship that everyone would compete to captain. Or maybe even bigger ventures, the running away from home, like Claudia and Nick in From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, or the summer camp trip that turned into an odyssey, maybe as sweeping as Sam Gribley’s in My Side of the Mountain.
So, as we once looked into the cost of making it as a young woman writer in New York, let’s look at the adventures and misadventures found in classic kids books, and how the economics of them compare, over time. We chose seven books (and yes, we had to omit many favorites). Each takes place in the U.S., and (with one young-adult exception) each is a kids book with a clear adventure, as opposed to, say, the day-to-day adventure that going to school can be, for a kid. We tried to space them over history, but we decided to stick to the past ninety years or so, and we also decided to avoid books with supernatural or sci-fi elements, as the question of how much a wrinkle in time might cost seemed an unanswerable question.
Of course where possible we will compare actual dollar amounts with same amount converted in 2012 dollars, but, for this installment, we are also interested in the general topic of how money informed these stories of escape or crime-solving or adventure.
THE BOOK: From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
THE (MIS)ADVENTURE: Brother and sister run away and live in Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Let’s start with a real crowd-pleaser. The first line: “Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.” The book is the story of a caper. Children of a comfortable Greenwich family Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, sixth-grader and third grader respectively, gather their financing, hop a commuter train and camp out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a week. With Claudia as the brains of the operation, and Jamie as the exchequer, they pull it off. And by camp out, we do mean camp out—evading security in the mornings and evenings, choosing a canopied bed in the Renaissance wing to sleep in, and using a (now gone) fountain in the museum restaurant for bathing.
This is a kids book with a very clearly delineated backdrop of money issues, as part of the adventure of squatting in the Met is the cost of it. The book is so attentive that it’d be possible to construct a day-to-day chart of the kids’ expenses, but here we’ll stick to a few examples. The two live primarily off of Jamie’s savings, twenty-four dollars and forty-three cents (which would be $167.58 now), which he acquired not through his allowance ($.25 a week, or $1.71 now) but through cheating his buddy at War playing for pennies per card. That’s not a small sum for two kids, even for a lost week in Gotham. Breakfasts were largely eaten at the Automat (this is very much a New York City book), and breakfast on the second day, cereal and pineapple juice for Claudia and a cheese sandwich and coffee for Jamie, ran fifty cents apiece, or $3.43 adjusted. And they even manage to wash the clothes they have, as these are two kids who understand the relative importance of cleanliness. It cost a quarter for the wash, ten cents for the soap and twenty cents for twenty minutes of dryer time—fifty-five cents, or $3.77 converted.
And Jamie is not only the treasurer for the trip, but he is genuinely obsessed with money, as evidenced by his pre-runaway stash. During days at the museum, they blend in with school field trips to snag a free lunch. At one school lecture in the Egyptian wing, Jamie asks: “How much did it cost to become a mummy?” And even Claudia admits, near the end of their adventure, as their quest to determine the provenance of a Michelangelo statue (bought at an auction for $225 dollars, or $1,543.37 converted) leads them to the estate of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the narrator of the story and seller of the statue, “There’s something nice and safe about having money.”
That is an apt sentiment, as, even though the kids pinch pennies as they go through their week, they are from a decidedly upper-middle-class existence, to the extent that we find out that, surprise! Mrs. Frankweiler’s staid lawyer, Saxonberg, is the grandfather of Claudia and Jamie. The dangers that the kids face, of being discovered and returned to their parents, are not very dangerous. Claudia and Jamie have it pretty sweet back at home, as sympathetic as we may be to their quest. We can imagine large parts of America in that time period would have a hard time seeing themselves in the story. This is not to take away from the appeal of the book, or from what the book says about adventures and why we are drawn to them. But, as focused on money as Jamie, and the book, is, the world of the book is a world where expense is ultimately not an issue.
But why did they run away? On Jamie’s part, because Claudia convinced him, and because it was an adventure. On Claudia’s part, she’s on a quest for some greater purpose. “I didn’t run away to come home the same.” And later she adds, “And I don’t want it to be over until I’m sure I’ve had enough.” There was nothing wrong with life at home other than a few kid-like complaints of chores; this was not a dystopian family that sometimes spurs the action in runaway stories. Claudia is looking for an epiphany. She doesn’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard, as it were. And it’s Mrs. Frankweiler, at her home in Farmington, that provides the gentle answer:
The adventure is over. Everything gets over, and nothing is ever the same. Except the part you carry with you. It’s the same as going on a vacation. Some people spend all their time on a vacation taking pictures so that when they get home they can show their friends evidence that they had a good time. they don’t pause to let the vacation enter inside of them and take that home.
Which is some pretty prescient advice for 1967, no matter one’s views on the role of money in one’s life.
THE BOOK: Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
THE (MIS)ADVENTURE: City girl moves in next to local boy, they become best friends, conspire to make us all cry our eyes out.
This one, as you’ll remember, is a tearjerker. Jess Aarons is entering the fifth grade of Lark Creek Elementary, in a rural section of Virginia. His family has a cow named Bessie that is his responsibility to milk, and he has two older sisters and two younger sisters. A girl moves in next door. Her name’s Leslie, and she’s from Washington D.C. She dresses funny for a girl in Lark Creek Elementary, tomboy-ish, and she has short hair. And she quickly becomes Jess’ best friend. She does not fit in. She disregards the unwritten rules of the school, with an attitude that passes for a pre-adolescent version of cosmopolitan. And she doesn’t enjoy it there very much.
She and Jess gel, and create a sort of clubhouse/fort across a creek bad and on the edge of the woods a short walk from their houses. There they establish the Land of Terabithia, an imaginary kingdom that they rule over as King and Queen. “Like God in the Bible, they looked at what they had made and found it good.” This is the adventure they have, Jess and Leslie, creating a space that inures them from the dull reality and small-minded tedium of Lark Creek Elementary.
But the adventure doesn’t last. Leslie dies, drowns in the swollen creek when Jess is away. That’s the part you shouldn’t read on the subway. What follows is as clear-eyed a depiction of grief you’ll find, which is finally thankfully broken when Jess takes his kid sister May Beth, the pest, down across a bridge he had quickly built across the creek, to be the new Queen of Terabithia.
A Bridge To Terabithia is a harrowing story of the adventure gone wrong, or, more accurately, cruelly cut short, but it’s also a document of a certain sociological shift that occurred during the 70s. Jess’ father is a laborer. At the beginning of the book, he’s driving back and forth to D.C. every day, as there are no jobs nearer to home. And the Aaronses are hard-pressed for cash. For a back-to-school shopping trip, the mother can only (grudgingly) part with five dollars for the two big sisters to shop for back to school supplies (which would be $18.90 now). Christmas is not a lavish affair for the Aarons. They are solidly working class.
But Leslie’s family, the Burkes, are members of what might be called the Creative Class. Mom and Dad (addressed by their daughter by their first names, Bill and Judy, as thick a signifier of the 70s as anything) both write for a living, and the reason that they have moved into the house down the hill from the Aaronses is, according to Leslie, because they are “reassessing their value structure.” They do not have a TV. But they aren’t hippies. Jess’ favorite teacher, Miss Edmunds, is the hippie. The Burkes are nascent Yuppies, though the term hadn’t been coined yet. They move to get their only daughter out of the city, away from the television, and into a more humble existence with trees and dirt and that sort of thing.
The area in which this takes place is not hillbilly-rural—shoelessness occurs by choice, and there are shopping centers in the neighboring towns that are the perennial target of the two older Aaron sisters. This is not a country mouse/city mouse story; little is stereotypical in this book. But it does feature a slow-motion collision of economic circumstance, as the child of the hard-scrabble meets the child of the flight from affluence. The Aaronses are defined by their lack and want of money (Jess’ dad is laid off right before the Terrible Day), while the Burkes are defined by their heedlessness of their well-to-do status.
And interestingly enough, it is the Burkes who move away from the area as the book comes to its conclusion, and the Aaronses, and Jess, that stay. Looking at the book purely from a socioeconomic viewpoint (while admittedly wiping tears from eyes), the story is one of looking up at the Creative Class, as they sweep in and out of town—a brief and temporary gentrification.
THE BOOK: Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
THE (MIS)ADVENTURE: Idiosyncratic grade-schooler who imagines herself a spy navigates social landscape.
In this kids book, the caper is Harriet herself. This is no Journey of the Hero in the Joseph Campbell sense; Harriet is a spy, almost genetically, documenting everything she encounters in her notebook in the early 60s Upper West Side of Manhattan. The obstacles that she must overcome she creates herself, or are the obstacles of a generic childhood, like the departure of her nurse/babysitter, or the school-kids banding against her because of the impolite observations she makes of them in her notebooks, or plotting to avoid the dance class her parents want her to go to. This is more the Journey of the Average Kid.
But there is adventure to be had, as Harriet is not a spy out of pique:
“I want to know everything, everything,” screeched Harriet suddenly, lying back and bouncing up and down on the bed. “Everything in the world, everything, everything. I will be a spy and know everything.”
And so Harriet not only scribbles observations of the day-to-day happenings, but also has a spy route that she lights out on every day after school—the Italian family that runs the grocery, a be-catted model-maker, a wealthy couple. It would probably be labeled a pathology today, but Harriet is unable to resist documenting her life on an as-it-happens basis.
Harriet has spy clothes, a hoodie and jeans, and a spy kit: a flashlight, a water canteen and a “boy scout knife.” But the primary tool of Harriet the Spy is the notebook, which must be at her side at all times. In 1964, the retail price of the Big Chief school tablet was 39¢ for forty pages (or $2.88 now, which seems like a lot?). Harriet is a sixth grader, so presumably her kit is supplied by Mom and Dad.
And remember that this story is set in the Upper East Side in the early 60s. Her family lives in a town house on East Eighty-Seventh Street, and they have a cook and a maid. The backdrop is New York City, so the characters in the background come from all classes, but the kids are all the children of what would be considered affluence, although not outright wealth—note Harriet’s best friend Sport, whose dad is a freelance writer waiting for his ship to come in—but of station enough, in the case of Harriet’s family, to afford the services of a nurse and a cook. And Harriet does have spending money: one of her spy stops is the soda fountain, where she has a chocolate egg cream and eavesdrop. The egg cream costs 12¢, or 88¢ adjusted.
As a sidebar, when her school offers her the job of writing the sixth-grade portion of the newspaper, Fitzhugh describes the moment when Harriet reads her first column: “She read her own printed words with a mixture of horror and joy.” The enduring popularity of Harriet The Spy is no mystery, as it is the story, one way or the other, of every media professional alive everywhere.
THE BOOK: Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
THE (MIS)ADVENTURE: After her dad is murdered, a girl and her family relocate to Los Alamos, mourn.
As she details in the afterword, Judy Blume lost her own father at a young age, and she was looking to write a book showing how the lives of kids can be affected not by violence, but by tragic and senseless loss. Davey Wexler’s father, proprietor of a 7-11 in Atlantic City, is shot and killed for fifty dollars ($126.02 adjusted), so the Wexler family, Davey and her mom and little brother, move to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to live with an aunt and uncle for what turns out to be a year.
On one level, the book is a snapshot of the life of a high-schooler in the early 80s. Davey, a sophomore, interns as a candy striper, and makes local friends, has a double date involving a bottle of vodka in which the boys scrape together eight dollars and sixty-four cents ($21.78 converted) for pizza and sodas. She has exactly $74.68 saved up from her summer job (which adjusts to $188.22 now), and she spends $32.50 of that (or $81.91 now) of that on a pair of hiking boots, which she uses to meet her mysterious quasi-boyfriend “Wolf,” who is also undergoing turmoil as his father is dying of cancer. An allowance is discussed with her aunt, who slips her a ten as spending money for her first day of school in Los Alamos ($25.20 converted). Davey’s not wanting; she’s spending what your average teen would be spending.
But the book is unique in the books selected as it does deal with the concept of the family finances. Part of the reason they move is that the father left no will, and no life insurance payout. In addition to the wrenching grief that consumes everyone (primarily, and not surprisingly, Davey’s mom), there is the uncertainty of what to do next, how to put the food on the table, and the aunt and uncle generously offer to take that concern off the mom’s shoulders. No dollar figures are mentioned, but, on top of the loss of the father, it’s finances that cause the Wexlers to spend a school year in Los Alamos, with the aunt and uncle, relatively more affluent than the Wexlers, with their expansive house and the side of beef they buy each year and their new pasta maker. It’s a telling subject, as how often do the choices made by the parents, choices informed by money, affect the lives of the children in ways that only reveal themselves in retrospect? In the real world: often.
Of course Tiger Eyes is not an economic treatise, but rather an unblinking story of what it’s like when the worst thing imaginable happens. (Like many of these books, it was adapted into a movie, in this case one released this year .) It tricks you into thinking that this is a romance, that Wolf will be the young man to pull Davey from her grief, but it’s not that cut and dry, and more chaste than expected. The dad is the unspoken character, both in the ways that he leaves the family unprepared for his passing, and in the ways that he is missed. Among the Christmas shopping Davey does she buys a five-wicked candle, the kind her dad would have liked, for $3.95 ($9.96 now), and burns it on Christmas night, alone in her room.
THE BOOK: The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warren
THE (MIS)ADVENTURE Four orphaned siblings live in boxcar; are resourceful then lucky.
The easiest way to demonstrate how different The Boxcar Children is from the other titles is the end:
“I hope not, my dear,” said Mr. Alden. “We’ll all live happily ever after.”
And so they did.
Not that all of the other books opted out of the happy ending, but none invoked the happy ending by saying it out loud. Truth is, as this book is older than all the others, it’s the most alien to kids books of today. Kids were kids longer back then (or at least the then-current literature so assumed), and a See Dick Run tone of the book runs through the book.
The same goes for the plot, which plows straight ahead like a steamroller. The kids—Benny, Violet, Jessie and Henry (in ascending order of age)—are roughing it, as their parents are dead and they are scared of their grandfather. In no time, they’ve found an empty boxcar in the woods, next to a creek for water and a junkyard for Deus Ex Machina. In less time, they are prosperous and comfortable (and eerily cheerful for orphans). And in even less time, they are set for life. They even get a dog in the process. The obstacles to overcome are purely implied.
Money is almost the fifth Alden child. While much of the children’s experience resembles a mash-up of Freeganism and “Gilligan’s Island”-style ingenuity—a ladle made from a cup, a stick and some wire! a pencil fashioned from a charred stick!—it’s the economic transactions, the purchases and barter, the fuel the carefree success of the kids. They (mysteriously) start out with four bucks in their pocket (or $53.59 adjusted). The kindly doctor that the oldest Alden, Henry, does odd jobs for pays the young man a dollar for each morning or afternoon of services performed (or $13.40 adjusted). And for winning a footrace at the Silver Field Day, Henry wins a silver cup and a prize of twenty-five dollars (or $334.95 adjusted). And the expenses of being Orphan Family Robinson? Negligible. What they pay for is food: loaves of bread, some milk. A pound of bread in 1924 sold for nine cents ($1.21 now), and a half-gallon of milk for twenty-eight cents (a shocking $3.75 now). Expenses were not exceeding revenue by any stretch of the imagination.
This falls in line with the casual self-reliance paraded through the book by Warren. The children: they like to work. Picking cherries for the doctor, they say to themselves how they love to pick cherries. Damming the creek to make a bathtub, they say to themselves how they love to build dams. And amidst this cheerful industry good fortune falls on them like hail. Even the scary grandfather they are trying to run away from turns out to be a kindly, younger man who can afford to pay a $5,000 ($66,989) reward for their safe return.
In the stiff formality of childhood presented in The Boxcar Children, where the boys work and provide and the girls cook and clean, economics are purely a function of moral character. Compare and contrast this with Tiger Eyes, published fifty-seven years later.
THE BOOK: Scat by Carl Hiaasen
THE (MIS)ADVENTURE: Middle-school best friends find themselves in the plot of a Carl Hiaasen novel, avoid bumbling bad guys, save both the Everglades and endangered panther.
Just as The Boxcar Children is emblematic of a more innocent time in kids literature, Scat is a clear example of how comparatively grown-up kids books are these days. Scat. The book is indistinguishable from Hiaasen’s adult, genre fiction but for the fact that the story is told from the POV from the kids, Nick and Marta, and there is no swearing, boozing or sexing. The plot is as giddily absurd as the standard Hiassen, the bad guys as quirky and ultimately bumbling, and the good guys deeply concerned with Florida and its natural wonders. Two characters from earlier adult novels are even featured, including Twilly Spree, the protagonist of Sick Puppy.
Nick and Marta stumble into investigating as reviled teacher Mrs. Starch goes missing after a field trip to Black Vine Swamp, and spooky loner and fellow student Duane “Smoke” Scrod Jr. is suspected. Nick’s and Marta’s casual curiosity leads them into a web of intrigue, uncovering a plot by Red Diamond Energy Corporation to hit oil on government land, the same land where Twilly Spree is trying to reunite a panther kitten with its mama.
Little shrift is given in the book to personal finance issues that kids may face today. Both Nick and Marta are solidly middle class, and even though they (and Smoke) attend a private school, Hiaasen takes pains to note that the school has fallen on hard times and has loosened its enrollment standards. About the only time that some financial concern is shown is when Twilly leads the kids through the swamp, and Marta worries that her brand-new Converses would be ruined. (If they were, say, the Trail Runner, a $47.00 expense.) Allowances and discretionary income are not at the front of the minds of Nick and Marta.
But at the same time, Hiassen does paint a picture of how southern Florida is at the mercy of a confluence of class issues. While the kids are middle class, Smoke’s grandmother is wealthy, and it’s her fortune that guarantees Smoke a slot at the school. And of course money is the motivating factor of the principals of Red Diamond—not for the millions an oil strike would bring, but rather the millions the government would pay for drilling not to happen in the Everglades. In this sense, the economics of the book are as grown-up as the plot itself, as what’s at stake is not how much Nick’s allowance is, but how the native flora and fauna sometimes collide with the financial interests of the speculators and developers.
THE BOOK: My Side Of The Mountain by Jean Craighead George
THE (MIS)ADVENTURE: New York teen lights out for the wilderness, rightfully earns nickname Thoreau.
“Any normal red-blooded American boy wants to live in a tree house and trap his own food. They just don’t do it, that’s all,” says Sam Gribley, explaining his journey. Gribley is the oldest of a large Manhattan family, who heads for the mountains of the Catskills (with his father’s blessings). Over the course of the book, he learns to be entirely self-sufficient, burning a “house” into the trunk of a large tree, fishing, trapping and foraging for food, bathing in a stream. He even finds himself a baby falcon, which he names Frightful and trains to hunt for him. At times it reads like more of a how-to than a novel, as Sam meticulously narrates how to make a fishhook, what plants are good for eating, how to tan a deer hide. While it is easily read as an answer to Thoreau or a precursor to Edward Abbey (an author copiously mentioned in Scat (apt, as Sam Gribley could easily grow up to be Twilly Spree), George is clearly a committed naturalist. Another reason for Sam’s year as a mountain man: “The main reason is that I don’t like to be dependent, particularly on electricity, rails, steam, oil, coal, machines, and all those things that can go wrong.”
Sam heads out with a penknife, a ball of cord, an axe, a flint and steel and forty dollars that he had saved selling magazine subscriptions. That $40 then would be $314.92, by the way, which is not a modest sum. But the fascinating thing is that the initial mention of that forty dollars is practically the only time that money is mentioned. Sam does buy a train ticket to get most of the way there (a mountain near Delhi, New York), but that’s it. Every other item, the food, the clothes, even the birch bark that he writes on with an ash pencil, he either makes himself or forages. It is a story of utter self-reliance.
But it’s not even a survival story. All travails are cheerful. And Sam is by no means alone. On top of the animal friends he makes—a weasel he calls The Baron, a raccoon he names Jesse Coon James—Sam has a steady stream of visitors. A little old lady finds him while picking wild strawberries, a college professor befriends him while lost on a hike. There is not a strong swipe of loneliness in the book. Sam is not getting away from it all; he’s recreating his world in the wilderness. The world he creates is so compelling that his entire family comes up to live with him for a summer at the end of a book.
It’s a patient, straightforward work. The elements of natural world are described lovingly, particularly the culinary creations that Sam toils over (Christmas dinner: blackened venison steaks, mashed cattail tubers with mushrooms and dogtooth violet bulbs with acorn gravy, and stewed honey locust beans with hickory nuts. Right?). What sets this book apart from the others included is that it completely sidesteps any sociological/economic issues, and deliberately so. It posits a world without money, a life led entirely without commerce. It’s a Utopian work.
It’s perhaps unfair to directly compare all of these books. Some, like The Boxcar Children, are aimed at the younger end of the Juvenile market, and others lean toward older kids or, like Tiger Eyes have a Young Adult classification. And naturally, there are hundreds more kids books that have much to say on these issues. For that reason, it’s tough to pull anything resembling a trend out of this. It could be fair to say that the ways that kids books dealt with money issues becomes more sophisticated over time, but then again the kids books themselves become more sophisticated as well. It’s interesting that the books of the 60s, namely Harriet the Spy and Mixed-Up Files, come from a more upper-middle- to upper-class perspective, but then again they are both set in the more well-off precincts of Gotham.
One thing is clear though: nearly every single of these books (sorry, Boxcar Children) is worth the re-read, or the first-time read if any are unfamiliar to you. There is a heart of absurdism to Harriet, and Scat is as satisfying as anything else Hiaasen has written. These are wonderful books, and you would not be wasting your time to augment the reading of the Hot New Thing with a re-read of some of the books you grew up with—the Newberry Medal is for real.
Maybe the reason why it’s so easy to suss out socio-economic facets of these kids books is that they’re books, just like boring old grown-up books, and maybe kids aren’t as naïve to the ways of the world as is assumed. But then you already knew that even if you forgot, having been a kid yourself, once upon a time.
Previously: What It Cost Eight Women Writers To Make It In New York
Brent Cox is all over the Internet.