Jean Merrill, the award-winning author of The Pushcart War, one of the 20th century’s best social satires for children, has died. Merrill, 89, died of cancer on August 2 at her home in Randolph, VA.
Born in Rochester, NY, on January 27, 1923, Merrill spent her early days on her parents’ farm playing games and reading stories that would serve as inspiration for her own books. She later worked as an editor for Scholastic before publishing her first children’s book, Henry, the Hand-Painted Mouse (Coward McCann), in 1951. In 1965, Merrill joined the Bank Street College of Education, where she both worked as an editor and a writer. She would go on to write more than 30 books for young readers.
A strong motif of everyday people triumphing over big business ran through much of Merrill’s work, including The Toothpaste Millionaire (Houghton, 1972), a hilarious, socially charged novel about an African-American sixth-grader named Rufus Mayflower, who arouses the anger of Corporate Toothpaste when he begins to produce and sell his own toothpaste at a fraction of the store price.
Similarly, in The Pushcart War (Scott, 1964), Merrill wrote about the conflict between a group of pushcart owners and large truck owners. Merrill received the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award for the novel, and SLJ named it one of its “One Hundred Books that Shaped the Century,” stating that, “this unconventional novel is social satire for children in its finest form.”
Merrill often drew upon her direct experiences for influences. Her own frustration at the truck traffic in Greenwich Village led to The Pushcart War while The Toothpaste Millionaire was inspired by a dentist she knew who came up with a recipe for toothpaste that his patients could make at home more affordably. Merrill was also known for her folk-tale adaptations, such as The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars (Philomel, 1992) and Shan’s Lucky Knife (Scott, 1960).
“We are saddened by the death of Jean Merrill, but couldn’t be prouder to have published her award-winning, bestselling, and gently subversive masterpiece, The Toothpaste Millionaire,” says her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “In her own words: ‘just because [kids] are kids, it doesn’t mean they can’t have good ideas.’ This empowering message informs all her work, and, because she’s so much fun to read, her work will always be popular with kids.”