Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen. Random House (Wendy Lamb Books), 2007. 88 pages.
Maturity Level: 4 (Ages 10-12)
Bottom line: Lawn Boy entertainingly teaches middle graders how the stock market works by recounting the adventures of a boy and his developing lawn-care business.
The nameless hero of this brief saga is twelve years old at the beginning of summer vacation, wondering how to find the money to buy a new inner tube for his 12-speed. Then his Grandmother gives him an old riding mower (property of his deceased grandfather) for his birthday, and the very next day he cuts the neighbor’s grass for twenty bucks. By the end of the summer he’s worth almost half a million. None of that, our protagonist admits, would have happened without Arnold, a neighbor who offers to invest the $35 he would have paid to have his lawn mowed. This takes some explaining:
“I don’t know what you’re talking about [says Lawn Boy]. You’re going to buy something for me with money you owe me but don’t have?”
“What are you going to buy?”
“Shares in a company. You would buy shares in a company.”
“Because if the company does well the shares go up in value and you sell them to someone else and make money.”
That’s the basic story in a nutshell (or on a blue chip), but along the way readers can learn a lot about Cash Flow, Supply and Demand, and Economic Expansion. The lawn care business grows and acquires employees and balance sheets, plus unwelcome attention in the form of an attempted Hostile Takeover. But by that time our hero has acquired controlling interest in a heavyweight boxer, and we learn something about Pre-Emptive Strikes and Peace Through Strength as well.
If this were a realistic story, there might have been more attention paid to the thousands of investors who lose money in the stock market and the relatively few who win as spectacularly as our hero. And by the way: if Arnold is so smart about picking stocks, how come he’s living in a modest house in a lower-middle-income neighborhood? But strict realism is not the point: this is a capitalist fable, or even fairy tale. In a down-turning economy it may seem too fairy-tailish (or bitterly ironic) for even a willing suspension of disbelief, but there’s a lot to be learned here. I most appreciated this valuable point, clearly made: successful capitalism relies on honesty. “That’s what you really want to know,” says Arnold. That’s what we really need to get back to, and Lawn Boy may be a good place to start. I have not read the sequel, Lawn Boy Returns (2008). Hopefully this is not the story of Lawn Boy’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Overall Value: 4 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 4
- Artistic value: 3.75
Categories: Middle Grades, Magical Realism, Discussion Starter*, Character Values
- Literary element: Describe how Lawn Boy’s business grows, step by step.
- Thematic element: Would his lawn business have been as successful without his stock market investments? Why or why not?
- Worldview element: Why does successful capitalism rely on honesty? Can you give an example?
Cover image from Amazon; buy button is for the paperback edition.