As any parent knows, getting children to focus can be challenging - even more so when it involves topics like monetary systems.
But comics are kid-friendly, and the New York Federal Reserve is using them to teach financial principles that baffle even adults.
“We’re not trying to create junior economists here,” said Anand Marri, who directs outreach programs at the New York branch of the U.S. central bank. “Our job is to promote economic literacy, so we can have a citizenry that understands the economic forces affecting people’s lives. These comics are a vehicle for that.”
Marri’s team unearthed a treasure trove of material from the 1950s and updated them for a new generation.
The first comic, “Once Upon a Dime,” released in 2017, is set in the planet Novus, whose fast-growing economy is driving its residents to adopt monetary systems for the easy exchange of goods and services.
This year’s sequel, “The Story of the Federal Reserve System,” may not have the most exciting title, but is drama-filled as a financial crisis forces the aliens to travel to Earth to study our central banks for solutions.
A third comic, due out in the first quarter, tackles how central banks tweak interest rates, by lowering them to stimulate lending and growth, or raising them to stem inflation.
More comics may come, depending on the response, Marri said.
The comics can be downloaded on the New York Fed website (here). Hard copies may be sent, free of charge, to teachers for classrooms. So far 70,000 digital and hard copies have been distributed.
“Tools like comic books are great because they get a conversation started and piques kids’ interest, and sometimes that’s the hardest part,” said Laura Levine, president and chief executive of the Jump$tart Coalition, a Washington nonprofit that promotes youth financial literacy.
Marvel Entertainment and credit-card company Visa partnered in 2016 to release one such comic, titled “Rocket’s Powerful Plan.” In it, characters from the popular Guardians of the Galaxy franchise discussed everyday money issues like saving, spending and budgeting.
Levine won over eighth graders at a recent school Career Day by bringing a stack of comics. “Those really saved me,” she said. “When I said, ‘Look, I have comic books,’ suddenly I was everybody’s favorite.”
Kids I talked to were impressed with the imaginative way the comics explained a subject they usually find boring.
Using aliens to tell the story was a wise choice, my 12-year-old Zach said. “That’s the type of stuff kids are into.” He enjoyed the trivia such as the tons of gold stashed in vaults below Manhattan, and what the tiny numbers on a dollar bill mean.
Zach does not, however, see any Marvel-like movie potential in the comics, which he said were too dense in parts. “A battle would have made it better,” he said.
The comic-book format makes the material much more interesting than a textbook, Aidan Wohl, 13, said. But he questioned narrative choices such as having an alien explain central banking through song.
In the end, Aidan was not fully convinced that central banks are a foolproof solution to any planet’s economic crisis. “Maybe 80 percent.”