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The Toothpaste Millionaire

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Sixth-grader Rufus Mayflower doesn't set out to become a millionaire. He just wants to save on toothpaste. Betting he can make a gallon of his own for the same price as one tube from the store, Rufus develops a step-by-step production plan with help from his good friend Kate MacKinstrey. By the time he reaches the eighth grade, Rufus makes more than a gallon -- he makes a million! This fun, breezy story set in 1960s Cleveland, Ohio contains many real-life mathematical problems which the characters must solve to succeed in their budding business. Includes black-and-white illustrations by Jan Palmer.

This 35th anniversary edition includes an exclusive author interview and reader's guide with book summary and discussion questions.

129 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1972

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Jean Merrill

45 books17 followers
Jean Fairbanks Merrill.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 196 reviews
Profile Image for Josiah.
3,211 reviews146 followers
October 28, 2022
How much good can an honest business venture do the world? A venture headed by someone wanting only to provide a necessary commodity to buyers who currently pay way more for it than they should, and to provide it for the absolute minimum profit margin. You won't find many adults interested in running a business for less profit than the market allows, but a kid? You might find a kid like twelve-year-old Rufus Mayflower, with the brains and sincerity to pull it off without his own innocence being corrupted. When Kate MacKinstrey moves with her parents from suburban Connecticut to Cleveland, Ohio, she doesn't fit in with the other kids until she meets Rufus. He doesn't care that Kate is white and he's black, and Kate is impressed by his pragmatism, smarts, and friendly spirit. On a routine trip to the drugstore to pick up a few items for his mother, Rufus gets to talking with Kate about the exorbitant price of toothpaste. Seventy-nine cents a tube? That's more than forty times what the product is worth. Rufus insists he could make a tube's worth of toothpaste for a couple of cents. And that's when the TOOTHPASTE adventure starts.

To keep costs low, Rufus engineers his own toothpaste formula based on bicarbonate of soda, then fills empty recycled jars of baby food with it to store for use. He and Kate sell the product locally for three cents a jar, making a penny profit on each sale. Soon everyone in the neighborhood wants to buy, and other kids are needed to help package and deliver. No fancy name developed by marketers is needed; Rufus calls his product TOOTHPASTE, and the name sticks. When TOOTHPASTE hits the airwaves via a local interest television program, "The Joe Smiley Show", business booms. People in Cleveland and beyond order TOOTHPASTE faster than Rufus, Kate, and their friends can pack it, and Kate figures it's time to expand the operation. With her vision of what TOOTHPASTE can become, and Rufus's earnest dedication to low-cost customer service, profits roll in, and TOOTHPASTE turns into a national sensation. Full-time employees are hired, factories rented, a coast-to-coast advertising campaign begun, but as controlling owner of the company, Rufus never diverges from the principles that made TOOTHPASTE successful. There are less scrupulous individuals than he in the dental hygiene business, however, men who will stop at nothing to buy out effective competitors or crush them to dust. But they don't have Rufus's winning attitude and honesty, and that's why no roadblock can permanently stop him. If you provide a quality product for minimal cost and don't stray from that model, the world is your bull market.

Rufus and his employees face some discrimination during his rise to business stardom. Rufus is black, but he's also a kid, and the adults who dominate the business landscape don't want to give him the time of day. As TOOTHPASTE grows in popularity, eventually it's necessary to take out a loan for factory equipment and other essentials, but banks won't front money to a twelve-year-old, not even a whiz kid with a solid business model. As The Toothpaste Millionaire bemoans, "The trouble with adults is that they never believe kids can do something even when they have good ideas." How are kids to achieve in any transcendent way when adults presume they're incapable of doing so because they aren't full-grown, so they refuse to support them? It's a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevents kids from reaching their potential until they're old enough that adults take them seriously. It's a significant barrier for Rufus, but a kid with the foresight to maximize profits by minimizing them is clever enough to obtain startup capital to get his business moving in the right direction. After that, watching the show grow is pure fun for the reader, who knew Rufus could tame his challenges all along.

Thirty-five years after The Toothpaste Millionaire first entered print in 1972, Gary Paulsen released Lawn Boy, a more popular book that explores the idea of a kid becoming wealthy after his neighborhood business performs absurdly well. As much as I love Gary Paulsen, The Toothpaste Millionaire is the better story, though. Lawn Boy's success falls into his lap, mostly owing to dumb luck. Rufus thrives because he crafts his ideas carefully and has a kind heart, never prioritizing profit over people. His ascent to fame and fortune is more believable, and the way he overcomes adversity shows why he's a winner in the business world: it's not in spite of his youth and inexperience, but because of them. That's why I rate The Toothpaste Millionaire two and a half stars, a full star higher than Lawn Boy. Author Jean Merrill has a bit of Newbery Medalist Susan Patron in her style, and I like it. If you pull for good kids to flourish in a world biased toward adults, you should kick back with a copy of The Toothpaste Millionaire and enjoy the ride.
Profile Image for JumbleofJargon.
403 reviews43 followers
May 26, 2018
A young Black American boy with the entrepreneurial skills of Madame CJ Walker and the curiosity and ingenuity of George Washington Carver brings his classmates from different backgrounds together to create something better and more cost effective than what already exists in 1960's Cleveland, Ohio.

Inspired by his like minded, industrious grandmother - Rufus Mayflower, a boy outraged by the high cost of toothpaste - designs a product for less than 20% of the cost of existing brands.

To me this story embodies hope. Hope that there exists people like Rufus who see a problem and want to fix it - not to make millions, or to make themselves look good - but to make others' lives easier. Rufus had a business model that shouldn't work in theory. He created a cheap product that lasts for a really long time so customers don't have to replenish their supply of toothpaste as frequently and thus save more money in addition to what they already save for a cheaper product. But it worked! If Rufus charged what the other brands charged, he could have easily been a billionaire. But he wasn't greedy, he did not prioritize money and he still profotted handsomely with a sum that likely went much farther in the 1960's than it would in 2018.

Rufus is the possibility that there exist people who strive to provide what others need without extorting them for high profit margins. Rufus is the possibility that there exist people who can enter a position of power and not be corrupted by others in the same league.

Rufus is more of what this world needs.
Profile Image for Brianna Addington.
1 review1 follower
October 20, 2014
As part of UMHB's READ 3307, I read The Toothpaste Millionaire. This is a fun and educational story that will catch older readers attention and help them gain interest in new topics like economics and inventions. The story follows Kate, a 6th grader and her friend Rufus, who is a genius. Rufus has formulated a type of toothpaste because he is outraged at the cost of the toothpaste available in stores. The book is about how he markets and sells his toothpaste and the expansion of his business which he runs by himself with the help of some of his friends. Though it's certainly not typical for a middle schooler to start their own company, it is certainly possible, which is why this book can be classified as contemporary realistic fiction. This book challenges children to think outside the box and achieve more than what is normally expected of them. The theme of setting high personal goals is increasingly relevant because children need to learn to be self motivators if they are to be successful. In the story, Rufus builds his business up with very little adult influence and it was entirely his own idea. His company starts small but you'll have to read the story to find out just how big it gets!
Profile Image for Lisa.
510 reviews4 followers
February 22, 2014
I learned a valuable lesson or two with this book. If I read it that was long ago because it's been around as long as I can remember. A 5/6th grade Math teacher asked for recommendations and since this book always comes up when searching for "math" fiction I decided I should investigate.

My copy is about 30 years old, and it is ugly. Who would want to read it? Well, I did and the book is valuable! If you haven't read it, do so. There is a good reason this book is still included in many Opening Day Collection lists.

I'm getting a new copy and certainly sharing this book often. It contains a great social message, lots of real-world and effective Math, AND it is a good story! I really think kids would enjoy it.

Go find a copy, and more importantly don't cut this title from your collections!
Profile Image for Michael Fitzgerald.
Author 1 book49 followers
January 21, 2018
Wonderful, engaging read.

This 89-page book is probably confusing to those in marketing. The 22 chapters are very brief, but it's not a beginning chapter book. It's middle grade, although some of the topics may be more on the high school level - I think only advanced junior high kids would grasp some of the business concepts.

The voice is absolutely perfect - a sixth grade girl who is very bright (though not exceptionally so), very honest, and not very street-wise. The short paragraphs work really well here, which is not always the case. It reads a lot like a student essay, though a bit more informal.

There is some early 1970s social thinking that seems perhaps a bit too contrived - the girl is white, the boy is black and they think nothing of this, although it is explicitly stated that others do. But it's presented in such an appealing and humorous way that this does not feel like an "issues" book. I appreciated the little poke at women's lib ("Mr. Perkell says you have to have a woman on a Board of Directors these days.") and how the next sentence shoots that down.

The illustrations by Jan Palmer make me think of what Trina Schart Hyman would do if the wind weren't constantly blowing in her world. I think I must know Palmer from something else, but I'm not sure what right now.
Profile Image for Nancy Kotkin.
1,405 reviews19 followers
May 4, 2019
Two sixth-grade friends start a toothpaste business. Business concepts, as well as math, are incorporated into the story.

But some very important math is left out of the book. To earn "a little over $2 million" of profits in one year at the rate of one cent per tube of toothpaste, Rufus and his friends would have had to manufacture and sell more than 3,500 tubes of toothpaste each week. This is supposed to be realistic fiction and that production rate doesn't seem possible to me. At the start, Rufus's helpers are a handful of other sixth graders. Even when his operation grows, he has one full-time employee with an outdated machine. Since they are selling a year's worth of toothpaste at a time, the 3,500 purchases each week would have to be new customers. This is quite a difficult proposition given that "the only TV advertising we could afford was on local stations."

Still, there are some very important business principles and lessons taught through this story. If used in a classroom or book club, the group could start a business together alongside Rufus's toothpaste venture.

The inclusion of a movie script near the end of the story is confusing. It's not clear if those events are taking place or Kate is imagining them.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
9,331 reviews399 followers
March 18, 2017
My edition the picture-book sized, 89 pp, Bank Street/HMH, 1972. Nice color illustrations, but still a true juvenile novel despite the odd shape. I'm reading it because the author's The Pushcart War is one of my all-time favorites.
Quick exciting read. I love how the math teacher, Mr. Conti, incorporated real life math from the toothpaste industry into class. I love that most people didn't care about race, but Merrill reminded us that it is relevant to some people. Much of the book is dated, but unfortunately I don't think the bits about racism are. And the history lesson about Grandma MayFlower's rejection of her slave name is valuable, and the bits about auctions & bureaucrats & bank loans, etc. are fascinating to the right audience.

And aren't most kids the right audience? Don't most kids dream of big money?

Sure, the story is unrealistic. But not entirely a fantasy, and I love it now and would have when I was a kid, too.
1 review
March 9, 2017
I read this to my first grader and third grader. Though some of the math concepts were over their heads, others were adaptable to their level. Like many kids, my kids have wanted to "start a business." This book fleshed out some of the obstacles that might be encountered in setting up one's own business... as well as the problem-solving involved to move past those obstacles.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,257 reviews3 followers
January 26, 2021
I brought it home from the library but my 8 yr old didn't want to read it because she said the title didn't sound interesting. I said I would start to read the story out loud and if she didn't want to continue I would read it to myself. By the end of chapter one she was hooked and kept saying "don't read ahead!" It was fascinating, believable, funny, great read aloud.

I loved that it had both black and white children, that it showed the usefulness of math, that being honest is admirable and can lead to more business. So many lessons in this short book. Really, really enjoyed it.
Profile Image for Marianne.
13 reviews2 followers
April 29, 2023
We read this for our homeschool entrepreneurship unit. It provided a quick representation of how a young person might start a business and some challenges he or she might face. Given that the book is geared towards middle elementary, I was surprised at how much my older students and I liked the story. One complaint I have is that towards the end, the storyline seemed rushed.
Profile Image for Debbie.
695 reviews12 followers
November 30, 2019
What an exciting story! Very simply told I think this story would inspire young readers to realize there are lots of possibilities available to them IF they just start putting the effort towards their dream. Being a millionaire is definitely a fantasy but being a success shouldn't be.
4 reviews
April 28, 2021
Absolutely a great book! It was the perfect example not to give up on an idea and not to doubt. It's a must read for ages 8 and up!
Profile Image for Melanie Dulaney.
1,376 reviews67 followers
December 20, 2019
Rufus is the idea man and Kate is his friend who manages the production aspect of making toothpaste and together they put out enough toothpaste to put $1,000,000 in the bank. Along the way, a strong friendship is formed between two unlikely candidates: white, female Kate and black, male Rufus. Solid, entertaining read for those in grades 3-6, although the 3rd grade readers will need to stretch to handle the vocabulary, but its relatively short length will not intimidate any in the target age group. Themes of friendship and strong work ethic are clear but not in an "preachy" way. Highly recommended for literature circle/guided reading groups in ELA classes with no warnings on content needed.
Profile Image for Katie Fitzgerald.
Author 4 books202 followers
March 10, 2018
Upset by the high cost of toothpaste, Rufus Mayflower, an enterprising sixth grader, decides to start making his own. Once consumers realize he is able to make a gallon of his homemade toothpaste for the cost of a single tube at the supermarket, business really takes off. As the demand for Rufus's toothpaste increases, he encounters a number of challenges, all of which he is able to solve with perseverance and ingenuity. The story is narrated by Rufus's friend, Kate, who, along with her classmates, solves math problems based on the growth of Rufus's business, modeling for readers how to calculate Rufus's costs, profits, etc.

This book is certainly a gift to anyone trying to teach a reluctant math learner. It shows exactly how math is used in practical ways in everyday business dealings, and it makes the math appealing by surrounding it with a compelling story. It also teaches kids how businesses are formed and how they run without bogging them down in a lot of details that sound boring or tedious.

But while this is one of the appealing aspects of the book, it's not the only one. This is not just a 90-page math problem. Rather, it is an engaging story, told by a believable and relatable narrator, Kate, who helps the reader develop feelings of awe and respect for Rufus and his capabilities. Because Kate does not have Rufus's knack for running a business, she has many of the same questions the reader might ask, and she is able to act as a bridge between Rufus's genius and the reader's own lack of sophistication. The story as a whole also empowers kids to think of themselves as innovators and creators and debunks the idea that only adults can make a difference.

Newer books have told stories with similar premises (Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen, Frindle by Andrew Clements, The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, etc.) but The Toothpaste Millionaire told it first and best, in my opinion. Another similar book, Henry Reed, Inc. (1958) by Keith Robertson, would also make a great read-alike for this book, but even Henry's research company in that story doesn't result in earning a million dollars! The Toothpaste Millionaire would make a great read-aloud for a wide range of ages; readers well beyond the age range of the intended middle grade audience can also get something out of it. I'll definitely be reading this book again with my kids in a few years!

This review also appears on my blog, Read-at-Home Mom.
Profile Image for Melissa McShane.
Author 58 books746 followers
April 12, 2012
This is a great little story about how an idea becomes a product becomes a business. As a child, I loved the idea that a kid could become a millionaire by creating something everyone used and then selling it at a reasonable price. As an adult, I enjoy the interactions between the characters. Rufus isn't too smart to take advice from his friend Kate, and through helping Rufus, Kate discovers a talent for writing. The technology is a little dated, and today's children may not be familiar with how race relations were in the 1970s, but it's still a good starting point for teaching children about economic basics.
191 reviews
May 12, 2017
A fun story about a boy who becomes a millionaire making toothpaste. I would give it 3.5 stars if I could. I think upper elementary kids will really enjoy it, and also middle grade reluctant readers. It will speak to any kid who has ever dreamed of starting a business and making big money. I really loved it until I got to the end, which I found a little awkward and confusing (one of the characters starts imagining the story as a movie script, and it's a bit confusing discerning what is really happening and what she is imagining for her movie script.) All in all, it's a good, solid choice!
Profile Image for Trena.
23 reviews
April 9, 2013
I thought this was an adorable book about a smart boy and his friends. It is really a shocking tale of a great idea. I loved it, I even did a book report on it. The story of how I found it starts in my 4th grade elementary library. The library was having a book sale because they wanted to get more books. So When I saw it I just wanted to get it because I thought it would be cool. Boy did it go past my expectations!
Profile Image for Jacqui Ainsworth.
Author 2 books3 followers
January 6, 2008
I really enjoyed this one. It has many educational aspects without being a beat your head over it type of book. It deals with racism, sexism, math, stocks, accounting, and more all in a quick read. I read it on my own when I found myself bookless but I'll be sharing it with my kids very soon.
Profile Image for Angie Libert.
342 reviews19 followers
September 26, 2012
A great kid's book that has stimulated alot of conversation on frugality, making stuff, and business ownership. Thanks for the lead JoDean. This is a definite reread!
Profile Image for Xanthe.
859 reviews28 followers
September 24, 2020
This was one of my late mother-in-law’s favorite books. She was an elementary school teacher and reading consultant, and when we helped box up her personal library, it seemed like every box had a copy of this book – paperbacks and lovely hardcover special editions in various states of use. Despite this, I had never read it, so it seemed like the perfect choice as a summer read-a-loud book with my eleven-year-old. He chose it over several other enticing options because it’s short and it turned out to be a zippy fun read that actually explains concepts like stock options, profit margins, and personal loans as well as doing a decent amount of math. The narrator is a Kate (McKinstry) Mac who moves to Cleveland in the 1970s. There, the first real friend she makes is Rufus whose brain is always going a mile a minute solving problems. They first meet when he helps Mac after her books spill across the road while she’s biking to school. She soon gets swept up into his plans for manufacturing affordable toothpaste at a fraction of the price that it’s sold for in the stores. Rufus has a creative and practical brain, while Mac’s is more impulsive, but they make for an unstoppable team that takes initial curiosity and turns it into a real movement, a business about plain speaking and honesty run mostly by kids. Sure, it’s a fantasy, and the end of the book takes a bit of a turn towards the dramatic, but it’s a great one. Kids who puzzle through real world problems and find solutions can really build things and make money? Sign me the hell up! This book also faces head-on the reality that Mac is white and Rufus is black. It isn’t dwelled on or turned into fireworks, but it’s real and something everyone notices and sometimes acknowledges. I appreciated this book for not pretending that discrimination wasn’t a problem, despite Rufus’s clear genius. I can tell why my mother-in-law returned to this book again and again. It’s clever and short, but also something you feel good about reading.
Profile Image for Tammy Glaser.
168 reviews
August 2, 2021
I previewed this as an elementary book to read at home for independent reading. Every kids wonders what it would be like to make a million bucks. An inventive, resourceful eighth grader in 1960s Cleveland finds out. The narrator is the new kid in town and, because she is a bit of a tomboy, she is finding it hard to make friends with the girls in her neighborhood. After she spills her books and papers all over the street, a fellow eighth grader helps her out. She asked where he bought his nylon bookbag, rare in those days. He told her how. When he saw her in math class, he slipped her a note with instructions of how to make the bag along with costs. Their teacher busted them by reading the note aloud. He was shocked to learn it really was a math problem. Imagine that. He invites her home and shows her how to make her bag and that was the beginning of a fast friendship. I will leave it to you to learn how he makes a million dollars.

The strengths of the book is the example of entrepreneurship and resourcefulness which many real life examples of math in action. Woven into the plot is an understanding of how to start and market a business. The weaknesses are that (1) nobody likes math (WHAT says this lover of math?) and (2) the author feels obligated to explain how two kids with different races could be friends. It would be better to let the friendship stand on its two feet without explanation.
77 reviews1 follower
June 11, 2020
I recently re-read this and loved it just as much as when I read it as a child. Toothpaste Millionaire is told from the perspective of Kate Macinstry as she details the period of time during middle school that her friend Rufus creates a plan to become a millionaire by selling toothpaste. Kate is a no-nonsense kind of girl so the story is told in a straightforward, no-nonsense kind of way which I enjoyed. Set in 1960s Ohio, Toothpaste Millionaire covers a wide range of topics including racism, descrimination in jobs, business, investment and the power of the media. It would be a great way to open up discussion about experiences that black children both had and have in schools and also the ways that children are treated differently due to their age. Lots of PSHE cross-curricular links alongside links to maths (the book is full of maths problems) literacy (scripts for advertisements and marketing) and DT (building rafts, machines with moving parts etc.)
Profile Image for Vin.
92 reviews10 followers
August 20, 2020
My mother's been selling all of our old school books and let me go through them to grab any nostalgic favorites. I used to love re-reading this one when I was younger. It was short but dealt with heavier themes (racism, the struggles of the working class, big pharma, and the evils of capitalism) and was one of the only books with platonic girl/boy best friends. All of the characters in this are endearing and the story is fascinatingly political while also being charming and enjoyable. I've been trying to learn how to make more of my products by hand and this book always reminds me of how corrupt the market is. I would absolutely have read a series of Rufus single-handedly destabilizing the market by making the cost of living affordable and fair. 4 stars.
Profile Image for Jennifer Ritchie .
352 reviews3 followers
December 8, 2021
My 10-year-old is going to love this book. I loved it myself! Jean Merrill’s style is simple and fun without being silly, and her story is a bit far-fetched, but fairly believable at the same time. I loved the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the kids, and their straightforward integrity as they built and advertised their business and took care of their customers. I’ve seen some reviews for this book saying that it’s a great way to learn about entrepreneurship, business, economy, etc. I suppose it is, but I like it because it’s a lot of fun.

Edit: my ten-year-old can’t stop talking about this book, and he’s reading way ahead of what I assigned him for today. I knew he’d love it. :)
1,174 reviews6 followers
May 18, 2018
The content of the story and the lessons learned are what earned this book four stars. The writing is pretty simplistic. Depending on the reader, that could be a good thing. As a read-aloud, the simple sentence structures forced me to really use voice and inflection to color the text, since the word selections didn't do that themselves. That said, this book is excellent at getting kids to learn about, becoming interested in, and understand concepts of business and economics. It's a great discussion tool, as well.
Profile Image for Lorena.
584 reviews
February 21, 2018
I bought this book for one of the kids, and it’s been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now. It was an ok book. Cute, clean, but nothing special. I’m trying to decide if it’s worth the shelf space. I think it might be a good book for older children who struggle with reading because the sentence structure is simple, but the content would probably be of more interest to a fourth - sixth grader.
Profile Image for Danielle Routh.
665 reviews10 followers
October 24, 2019
I first read this in elementary school, loved it then, and still love it now. Some suspension of disbelief is required, sure (a million-dollar business plus the trials of sixth grade?), but it's a wonderfully engaging book about economics, good ethics, and integration, all of which feel natural to the story rather than shoved in for the sake of education or diversity. I really can't think of anything I dislike about it, except maybe that I wish it were longer.
Profile Image for Cat + book = Catbook :) .
104 reviews1 follower
June 1, 2020
It is about a girl named Kate and a boy named Rufus. they had an idea to make toothpaste and they got a lot of money. Then Kate saw a building for rent and there was a machine that can put toothpaste in a toothpaste toob. So she got Rufus to rent it and then business was booming. The last day of school Rufus retired and went to go spend time with his grandma. Rufus became a toothpaste millionaire.
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 196 reviews

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