In 2004, James Merritt lost his father, who passed having left Merritt’s mother in a secure financial position. Personal finances was not something that was discussed openly in the Merritt household, a taboo that Merritt is addressing with his Spencer’s First series of children’s books on financial literacy.
When his father passed, Merritt and his sisters were surprised at just how successfully their father had managed to set aside money for their mother. “That kind of made me think about, why didn’t he talk to us really about this?” Merritt said. “He gave us a very strong work ethic but not really the financial information side.”
Merritt had gone to college, and was working in what he called a good public relations job, but still struggled with money management and saving. He learned to manage his personal finances the hard way, a fate he wanted to spare his four nephews (the youngest of whom, Spencer, is the series’s namesake), and his son, who turns one in October.
Noting that in the African-American community money is often a taboo subject, Merritt says people with means do not shy away from such discussions with their families, helping to establish good financial habits from a young age for their children.
“I wrote the books because I just want to break the taboo,” said Merritt. “I want families to see that it’s okay to talk about money, it’s okay to break down small vocabulary for children so they can grow up with it so they won’t get hit hard with those terms when they’re older and have money. And once you break that taboo, it’s much easier to talk about building resources.”
The first book in the series, published in 2005, is titled Spencer’s First Dollar, focusing on five areas of budgeting. The second book, Spencer’s First Bank Account, published in 2013, introduces children to traditional banking and basic terms like saving, deposit, withdrawal, interest, and loan. The next book, Spencer’s First Asset, is slated for release later this year.
“It’s never too early to begin talking to kids about stewardship, budgeting, [and] saving for a rainy day . . . It’s never too early, and the earlier the better,” said Merritt, who hopes his books will be a first step in leading a financially free life.
“Kids learn what you teach them. A lot of people think that financial topics might be too sophisticated for children, but the reality is they learn what you teach them, they mimic the words you share with them regularly, and if those words are financial words, they’ll be saying money right along with saying mommy.”
In addition to wanting to impart important information about finances to children at a young age, Merritt also wanted to address the dearth of Black characters in children’s literature, a lack of visibility that also affects children’s perceptions of the number of Black authors. “There just are not a lot of books with Black characters, and there’s also not a lot of knowledge around Black authors,” said Merritt. “Many people, many children, when I go to schools to read the book, are not even aware that there are Black authors. There are not really any Black books in the school library, so I really work hard to let people know that, one, Black authors do exist. A lot of us are independent because there’s just not a lot of publishing surrounding Black authors, and especially children’s books.”
Merritt has chosen to self-publish his books, illustrated by former MICA student Hwayoun Lee. This, he said, gives him more control of the marketing, allows him to keep more of the revenue generated by book sales, and helps him avoid many of the horror stories of fellow Black authors outright rejected by publishers or pushed into writing only certain types of books.