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Lawn Boy makes business and economics fun

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I just finished reading a pair of books with chapter titles like, “The Principles of Economic Expansion,” and “The Law of Increasing Product Demand Versus Flat Production Capacity” and “The Methodology of Team Development.”

They’re for 10 year olds.

I should be more precise. Excellent fiction writer Gary Paulsen has authored two books about a 12-year-old entrepreneur. Lawn Boy and Lawn Boy Returns trace the business adventures of the unnamed narrator after he receives his grandfather’s old riding lawnmower as a present from his grandmother.

Stuck with a lawnmower, an aimless summer, and a lawn that’s too small to provide much of a challenge, our hero responds positively when a neighbour asks him to mow his lawn as well. It is, as he puts it, very simple. “I mowed it, and he gave me money.”

But our narrator is a little more savvy than most 12 year olds. He immediately begins to figure out how much he actually made from the job—$8.50 an hour.

Soon, all the neighbours on the block are hiring the narrator to mow for them. The previous landscaper in the neighbourhood had run off with the wife of a customer, so a 12 year old feels like a safer, as well as a cheaper, choice

The narrator’s business expands until it’s too large for him to handle, but a local stockbroker offers to pay for lawn care by investing the narrator’s earnings and then suggests that the high demand for lawn care be handled by hiring more workers. Soon the Lawn Boy has an empire.

Various other adventures occur, including an investment in a local prize-fighter. The sequel expands on these, with disreputable relatives attracted by the prize-fighter’s success arriving in town, the hiring of managerial staff for Lawn Boy’s ever increasing business, and the arrival of local lawyers who want Lawn Boy to sue his parents for violating child laws.

Everything is described in a rapid fire and light-hearted way, with a breeziness that’s sure to appeal to the upper-elementary school audience.

But amid all that breeziness, Paulsen is careful to stop every now and again and explain exactly what’s going on. Here’s the stockbroker explaining to Lawn Boy why he should hire some help.

“Supply and demand.” Arnold nodded. “It’s groovy, man. The very nature of the concept of economics structure. You just need more mowers, more people, to meet the growing demand…You need to start distributing the wealth, dispersing the work. Far-out. It’s beautiful.”

While some economists might quibble over the use of the term “distributing the wealth” as a way of talking about hiring people for jobs that are in demand, they should be delighted to know that there’s a book for kids out there with such a clear example of the way demand drives supply.

And no fan of Deirdre McCloskey’s argument about the importance of bourgeois virtues could quarrel with Lawn Boy’s obsession with finding ways to do his job better.

I found myself thinking about how to best lean into turns so that the mower wouldn’t leave rough patches that needed to be trimmed by hand. I spent a great deal  of time wondering if I could rig an umbrella to the mower to keep the sun off my face, not because I minded the heat, but because when I squinted, I made the rows uneven. I dug through old copies of Sports Illustrated to look for pictures of major-league ballparks’ outfields so that I could study the patterns the grounds crews left behind in the nap of the grass.

Never didactic and never dull, Paulsen provides his young readers with a thorough grounding in basic economics and business concepts, introduces them to the stock market, and talks them through the changing needs of growing business enterprises. And he does it all in about as many pages as it takes John Galt to make one speech.

The St. Louis Federal Reserve and the Florida Council for Economic Education have already made up economics lessons plans for readers of Lawn Boy and Lawn Boy Returns. For free market fans and entrepreneurs of all ages, the books are a pleasure to read. More importantly than that, they are entertaining advocates for the importance, and fun, of participating in and learning about a world of business and economics.


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