Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

Top Five Books on Incentives

Click on the title for each book to see book cover and more details.


Title: Professor Puffendorf's Secret Potions
Author: Robin Tzannes
Illustrator:  Korky Paul
Publisher: Checkerboard Press
ISBN: 1-56288-267-8
Year: 1992
Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level:   4.8

Concepts: jobs, inventions, incentives

Summary: While Professor Puffendorf is away, Slag breaks into her top-secret cabinet and decides to do a little experimenting of his own, on Chip the guinea pig.

Source of Summary: Publisher

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Title: Swindle
Author:  Gordon Korman
Publisher:  Scholastic Press
ISBN:  978-0-439-90344-8
Year:  2008

Concepts: scarcity, supply and demand, incentives

Review: Eleven-year old Griffin Bing had heard enough of his parents' arguments about too many bills and not enough money. If only his father had kept his engineering job and not risked everything with that silly new invention, the SmartPick fruit picking device of the future. Now the family might even need to sell their house and move to a more affordable location. All these worries seemed to melt away when Griffin found a rare Babe Ruth baseball card in a deserted old house slated for demolition. He had a hunch that card could be worth a lot of money.

Initial disappointment that the local collectibles dealer, S. Wendell Palomino, purchased the card for only $120 led to outrage when Griffin discovered that Palomino had lied about its true value. The Babe Ruth card could fetch close to a million dollars at the auction where Palomino planned to sell it. Griffin, always "the Man With a Plan," needed his best plan ever to get the card back. He would also need a team of friends to help him deal with a ferocious guard dog, high-tech security, watchful eyes, a locked safe, and those inevitable surprises.

Hold onto your hats and get ready for a fast ride. Swindle is a hilarious novel that provides a clever story and could even leave a racing heart and sweaty palms. Reading about how economic incentives can lead to some truly extraordinary behaviors has never been so much fun.

Review by:  Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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Title: Rich: A Dyamonde Daniel Book
Author:  Nikki Grimes
Illustrator: R. Gregory Christie
Publisher:  G.P. Putnam's Sons
ISBN:  978-0-399-25176-4
Year:  2009

Concepts: poverty, homelessness, incentives, wealth

Review:  As a very smart and even more vocal third-grader, Dyamonde Daniel had a knack for finding adventures and treasures in unlikely places. The secondhand store was one of her favorite places to find little treasures, so she took her best friend Free there for a visit. He had complained about being poor after his dad lost his job, but Dyamonde knew he had a lot to learn about poverty, including the stories behind how some of those items wound up at the thrift store.

Even Dyamonde had a lesson to learn about being poor and rich, and it came from the very quiet girl in their class who never raised her hand until the day the teacher asked which students wanted to enter a poetry contest that offered a $100 grand prize. This girl never ate anything at lunchtime and she lived in an unfamiliar building close to the secondhand store. She had a story to tell, and Dyamonde took it upon herself to coax the story out.

Acclaimed author Nikki Grimes has delivered another winning combination of spunky characters, a sweet story, and powerful lessons. This short novel offers a nice opportunity to discuss how children are affected by difficult economic circumstances and how they can find support in the community. The book should charm and inspire a wide readership.

Review by:  Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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Title: Ace Lacewing Bug Detective: Bad Bugs Are My Business
Author and Illustrator:  David Biedrzycki
Publisher:  Charlesbridge
ISBN:  978-1-57091-692-2
Year:  2009

Concepts: competition, incentives, entrepreneur, strikes, wages

Review: Ace Lacewing, the best detective in town, has a new case to solve.  The client, a small flea named Scratch Murphy who owns Six Legs Amusement Park, has a big problem: someone hit him on the head with a toolbox and stole his flea bag stuffed with money. Without that money, Scratch cannot pay back the construction loan he took out from the bank. 

Armed with his keen detective skills and trusty companions, Ace Lacewing loses no time in digging for clues and interrogating the suspects.  The banker needed money for an expensive trip; the carpenter ants had gone on strike over their low wages; Bo Weevil was hopping mad that Scratch had put Bo’s cotton candy stand right next to a competing honey stand; and Scratch’s girl-friend and his brother were observed exchanging a suspicious package.  Everyone has a motive, so who stole the money?

Young readers of all ages will enjoy this fast-paced and clever book.  Not only do the bug puns come fast and furious, the marvelous illustrations add a wealth of bug humor and visual detail. On top of the wit, the author uses a number of economic incentives to shape the suspects’ motives, making Bad Bugs Are My Business a truly satisfying read all-around.

Review by:  Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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Title: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Author: Roald Dahl
Publisher: Puffin Books

ISBN: 978-0-14-241031-8
Year: 2007 (paperback reissue)

Concepts:  incentives, poverty, scarcity, producers, consumers, competition

Review:  Given the popularity of Roald Dahl’s classic book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and of the 2005 Hollywood movie by the same name, few readers need a summary of the plotline and characters.  However, less obvious are the valuable economics lessons interwoven throughout this beloved book.  The reader meets Charlie Bucket and his parents and both sets of grandparents in the opening chapter, and quickly learns that this family lives in harsh conditions of poverty, with just one bed in a two-room wooden shack.  Charlie’s father supports this household with a low-pay position as an unskilled worker in a toothpaste factory, screwing caps onto toothpaste tubes all day.  The family suffers malnutrition and near starvation, with a diet based mostly on bread, potatoes, and cabbage.  Once a year on his birthday, Charlie is given a chocolate bar, which he savors, morsel by morsel, over the course of an entire month.

In contrast, the other four children who win golden tickets to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory do not know the meaning of scarcity as they come from families with varying degrees of wealth.  Also in contrast to Charlie’s wretched living conditions is the presence of Willy Wonka’s enormous chocolate factory within sight of his own house.  The reader learns more valuable economics lessons from the tale of why Mr. Wonka decided to close his factory to all workers and other people.  Earlier, “spies” had leaked secrets of his special production processes to competitors who then proceeded to copy Mr. Wonka and produce the same kinds of delicious and whimsical sweets.  The process of producing chocolate and candies in a factory, and the natural resources used to make the products, are economics lessons that appear throughout the book.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also teaches about consumers and how they respond to incentives by buying more or less of a product; in this case, news of the five golden tickets causes a surge in consumers’ demand for Wonka chocolate bars.

Children may think they know the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but chances are they do not realize that they are getting a good dose of economics from start to finish.  This book makes a nice addition to most collections, including those used to teach lessons about poverty, competition, consumers, and producers.

Review by: The Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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