What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: Thomas Rockwell’s ‘How to Eat Fried Worms’

At $3.33 per worm.

Photo credit: r. nial bradshaw, CC BY 2.0.

Thomas Rockwell’s How to Eat Fried Worms, which a lot of us probably read in third grade—or, more appropriately, held the book in front of us as our classmates took turns reading pages aloud—is about two things:

  1. Will Billy be able to eat 15 worms in 15 days, thus winning the bet he made with Alan and earning $50?
  2. Will all of the parents involved let Billy and Alan do this?

A brief recap: Alan bets Billy $50 that Billy won’t be able to eat fifteen worms in fifteen days. Alan and his friend Joe do their best to prevent Billy from eating the worms, including distracting Billy, making a fake worm out of beans, and writing a fake doctor’s note informing Billy’s mother that worms are poisonous. Billy and his friend Tom overcome all of these obstacles through friendship, perseverance, and… um… chewing.

There’s a second story going on behind this first story, and it takes place from Billy’s parents’ perspective. They are unsure whether to allow this bet to continue. First they’re worried about the worm-eating itself; then, once they confirm with a doctor that eating fifteen worms isn’t going to pose any danger, they’re worried about the money.

More specifically, they’re worried about the power.

If one elementary-school-aged boy can decide to take fifty dollars out of his savings account—current balance: $130.79—and give it to another elementary-school-aged boy, who can then use those fifty dollars to buy a used minibike from a high-school-aged boy, what power do they have as parents? Sure, they can distribute allowances and insist on savings accounts, they can say “we’re not going to buy you a minibike,” but their kids have figured out, on their own, how to use their assets to get what they want.

A different set of parents would simply say “nope, this stops here,” and Billy’s parents do in fact try that technique on the fifteenth worm, but it’s too late. Billy’s friend Tom helps smuggle that last worm up to Billy, who eats it while grounded in his bedroom and thus wins the bet and the $50 and is able to buy the minibike (which he shares with Tom because he is a good friend).

Of course, this only happens because Alan’s parents insist that Alan honor his agreement. They, too, could have said “this stops here,” but they decide to let Alan learn what they consider an important financial lesson.

Alan, meanwhile, had a card he was ready to play with his parents, should they have told him he couldn’t take the $50 out of his bank account. He was going to tell them that he would either withdraw the $50 or he would sell his stamp collection to another child and use that money to pay Billy. “I bought that [stamp collection] with all my own money that I earned mowing lawns,” Alan says, “so I can do what I want with it.”

The idea of who owns a child’s assets—stamp collections, minibikes, savings—is often a vague one, and parents and children sometimes only confront it when, for example, the family holds a yard sale and the children (mistakenly) assume that they’ll be able to keep all of the profits from the sale of their old toys. The parents are looking at everything from the perspective of “this belongs to the family,” and the children focus in on specific dolls and games and think “this belongs to me.”

That’s the idea that Billy and Alan’s families both have to wrestle with in How to Eat Fried Worms: Who owns our son’s stamp collection? Who owns his savings account? Who owns his older friend’s minibike? Is money earned from mowing lawns or eating worms truly theirs?

How to Eat Fried Worms was published in 1973, when $50 was the equivalent of $271.23. It’s interesting that $50 still seems like an overwhelming sum for an elementary-schooler to be handing around, and $271.23 seems incomprehensible. (Honestly, $50 still seems like “a lot of money” regardless of the age of the account holder.)

Today, kids’ big-ticket toys are often electronics, which come with even more blurry ideas about ownership: who owns the Xbox that the entire family uses for different purposes? Who owns the smartphone that’s on the family plan? A kid may have a login on the home computer, but the parents clearly own it; when the kid graduates to a personal laptop, the parents control (and pay for) the Wi-Fi. Laptops, unlike minibikes and stamp collections, are also often essential for school assignments, meaning that a child can’t just sell this valuable asset for cash, should he have made a bet with his friend involving fifteen worms.

Billy shares his minibike with Tom, but today’s kids might have fewer shareable assets; video games are downloaded to one user only, Netflix eliminates the thrill of carrying a squishy Disney VHS case in your backpack, and nobody swaps CDs anymore. Do kids still share books? Is there a contemporary equivalent to that one copy of Flowers in the Attic that got borrowed from an older sister’s bookshelf and passed around from desk to desk?

At this point I’m veering towards speculation, since I don’t have children and don’t know the economies they’ve developed. I know they have their own methods of trading and sharing assets. I can guess, mostly from reading one Washington Post article, that a lot of these assets are now virtual:

Right now, Katherine is still looking down.
“See this girl,” she says, “she gets so many likes on her pictures because she’s posted over nine pictures saying, ‘Like all my pictures for a tbh, comment when done.’ So everyone will like her pictures, and she’ll just give them a simple tbh.”
A tbh is a compliment. It stands for “to be heard” or “to be honest.”

But I’ll open it up to you, and the children you know: What are kids sharing and selling, these days? Money? Stamp collections? Likes? What assets are valuable, and what assets do they consider theirs?

What, today, would be worth eating fifteen worms?

(BTW I realized as soon as I typed it that I knew the answer, and it’s probably something along the lines of “a YouTube/Instagram/Vine brand sponsorship offer,” which takes this question out of the kid economy and puts it in the larger economy. But I’ll end here anyway. Discuss.)