02 October 2007

Where the Lunch Money Goes

Lunch Money is one of Andrew Clements's best "school stories." This one mainly follows Greg, a sixth-grader who's a little too interested in money. The book starts in a rare fashion, flashing back to Greg as a preschooler to show that this interest is long-standing. That's well below the age of the book's target audience, and well before its plot starts; Clements has the track record to get away with that, but it's not advisable for new authors.

I suspect Lunch Money was inspired, at least in part, by the increasing commercialization of American public schools, along with other public institutions: museums, public broadcasting, tax collection, national defense, and so on. Chapter 17 says:

On the first day of school Mrs. Sanborn had required that all the kids tape covers onto their new books. And the glossy book covers Mrs. Sanborn had handed out were loaded with pictures of high-school athletes wearing Nike shoes and Nike shirts and Nike shorts and hats and warm-ups. And Maura realized that every social studies book in the classroom was trying to sell her something.
This realization comes right after the school principal, citing school committee policy, has forbidden any students to sell comics books in school.

Given those themes, it makes sense for Lunch Money to use comic books as its main props. Greg creates tiny, hand-drawn comics about cavemen and superheroes to sell at his school. Maura, his long-time rival, starts to make little picture books about princesses and unicorns, but then a one-night reading of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics reveals her to be a natural at sequential-art storytelling. (Kids, don't try this at home; McCloud's books require much more time to digest. Besides, Making Comics is now a more practical guide.)

The school principal tries to halt the sale of "small comic books" specifically. Bottom line: Lunch Money is about the debate over what's permissible in school and what's impermissibly "commercial," about the line between healthy commerce and money-grubbing.

Our culture has traditionally treated mass-market adventure comics as more money-grubbing than almost any other form of printed stories published for kids. This despite the fact that they're usually less expensive, at least in the periodical form, than "real books." Of course, comic books do contain ads, they're designed to make you buy the next issue, and without plastic bags and care they don't last as long as hardcover picture books. But still.

I think the main reason comic books are seen as perilously "commercial" is that they've been marketed and priced for kids themselves. In contrast, adults tend to pay for picture books and middle-grade novels like Clements's, and thus control the purchase. Comic books are one of the few things that Greg buys with his own money, when he's willing to part with it.

When our culture looks down on comic books as commercial, it may not be the actual expense that scares us but the financial autonomy of young consumers.

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