The Hundred Penny Box: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will explore the characters, themes, and story of Sharon Bell Mathis' picture book ''The Hundred Penny Box.'' We will learn about the significance of Aunt Dew's stories, the Jefferson family's situation, and the importance of cultural and ethnic heritage.

Transgenerational Bonds

100-year-old Dewbet Thomas has a penny for every year of her life. She stores them in a precious old wooden box. It's not just a prized possession. It has little inherent value: just a dollar. But to Dewbet, the box is herself. With her great-grandnephew, Michael, at her bedside, 'Them's my years in that box,' she said. 'That's me in that box.' Each penny represents a year full of memories. The box she keeps them in is old, tattered, and worn just like her body has become. 'When I lose my hundred penny box, I lose me.'

Sharon Bell Mathis' The Hundred Penny Box (1975) is a 47-page book illustrated with sepia-tone watercolor pictures. It tells of Michael and his great-great-aunt Dew, looking at aging through the eyes of a boy. The story speaks to the importance of African-American cultural and ethnic heritage, oral storytelling, and transgenerational family bonds. Readers in grades 3-5 will be able to empathize with Michael. And along the way, they'll learn about African-American history without even realizing it.

Grandmother and child in sepia-tone
grandmother and child

Out With the Old, In With the New

The Hundred Penny Box takes place in Atlanta, Georgia, in the mid-1970s. Michael's great-great-aunt Dew has recently moved in with them. The responsibility of caring for Aunt Dew fell on Michael's parents, Ruth and John, when Dew's children, Junie and John, died in a drowning accident. The long line of Johns in the family ended with Michael (Michael John Jefferson). Dew either won't accept the change, or can't remember who Michael is because she insists on calling him John.

Dew's memory is failing her. That's why her penny box is so important - not just to Dew but to Michael as well. Each penny carries with it the memories that otherwise escape her mind. Michael loves hearing Aunt Dew's stories. He prizes the box almost as much as she.

That's why, when Ruth threatens to take the box away, Michael hatches a plan to hide it. Ruth is of the philosophy, 'out with the old, in with the new.' She's furiously spring cleaning while Michael sits at Aunt Dew's side listening intently to her stories. It's not that Ruth is uncaring. Far from it. Now that she carries the responsibility as Dew's primary caregiver, Ruth keeps a close eye on Dew. It's not that Ruth is controlling, either. She sees no value in old, broken things. Ruth would rather replace that old box with a new, shiny one. But as Dew explains to Michael, the box, as well as the pennies inside it, are a part of her.

Ruth may not be a trained nurse, but she knows that if Dew falls asleep sitting upright in her chair, she will fall and break a bone. But Michael doesn't understand why his mother insists on destroying the box, or why she argues with him to let Aunt Dew lie in bed and rest. In order to help him understand, Ruth tells Michael the story of his old teddy bear. The ratty old toy got thrown away, like the Velveteen rabbit. Sometimes things break, and they need to be replaced. It doesn't mean that we don't love them anymore.


Her box of 100 pennies is no different than a photo album. Dew remembers little details of her life, engraved on the coins' copper faces. Holding the pennies in her hand helps Dew remember significant events from each year. Michael picks them out of the box one by one as Dew tells the story of her life.

Penny #1: 1874. 'Year I was born. Slavery over! Black men in Congress running things. They was in charge. It was the Reconstruction.' The Reconstruction Era in the late 19th century ended in 1877. During this period, southern states saw continued racial tension while struggling to rebuild their cities and society after the Civil War.

First Colored Senator and Representatives in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States.

Penny #27: 1901. Dew gave birth to twin boys with her husband, Henry Thomas. Henry gave her the box and her first 31 pennies on her birthday in 1905.

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