Documentary Charmingly Tells the Story of ‘Highlights for Children’ Magazine

By Mark Walsh — April 23, 2018 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

If you remember being introduced to Highlights for Children magazine as a young person at your doctor’s or dentist’s office, it turns out that there was some calculation to that.

The new documentary “44 Pages” charmingly tells the story of the iconic, 72-year-old magazine for children ages 6 to 12.

Highlights was founded in 1946 by two lifelong child-development experts, Gary C. Myers and Caroline C. Myers, a husband-and-wife team who were, respectively, a child psychologist and an educator. They worked for a publication called Children’s Activities for several years before deciding to start their own magazine.

The earliest issues had one of the magazine’s signature features—the Hidden Pictures puzzle. Within two years, the most famous characters arrived—Goofus and Gallant, the young boys who consistently do the wrong thing and the right thing, respectively. For some reason, the characters sported elves’ ears at first.

Other features followed, and door-to-door sales quickly grew the circulation. But business troubles within about four years almost led to the shutdown of the magazine. Then the Myers’ eldest son, also named Gary like his father, hit upon an idea that put Highlights back in the black: Sell subscriptions to doctors and dentists, where generations would be exposed to the magazine in the waiting room. (The younger Myers and two other magazine staff members tragically died in a plane crash in 1960 while on company business.)

44 Pages,” a 90-minute documentary directed by Tony Shaff, has been making the film festival circuit since last year and has its national digital release on Tuesday.

The film, whose title refers to the steady length each month, focuses on the magazine’s quaint editorial offices in tiny Honesdale, Pa., in a pre-Civil War mansion that has served that function since the 1960s. The filmmakers are hanging around at a time when the small Highlights staff is planning the 70th anniversary issue, in June 2016.

Editor Judy Burke started at the magazine as an intern, and she says “I know that my 9-year-old self would be excited that I work at Highlights.”

We see Editor-in-Chief Christine French Cully meeting with the editorial staff, talking about young people’s growing interest in electronic devices and apps.

“Can we think of a Goofus and Gallant that might reflect that growing trend?” she asks.

Cully tells the filmmakers that children have been seeing faster physical growth in recent decades, but their social-emotional development still needs careful nurturing.

Highlights offers a publication that is devoid of almost anything that could be considered controversial or edgy. Its pages each month are full of bright, colorful articles, puzzles, poems, young people’s letters and other features.

Cully explains that Highlights is not the place to explain things such as terrorism or gun violence to children. “Even frightening things, natural things like hurricanes and tornadoes, we don’t talk about those in Highlights,” she says.

Another says that young readers are often submitting artwork for the readers’ pages of dinosaurs eating each other. That, too, is deemed unsuitable for Highlights.

The magazine also steers clear of politics, though one editor says that some young readers have written in to ask when the magazine’s pages might reflect their same-sex parents. (In a postscript, the documentary notes that families led by same-sex parents were acknowledged in a 2017 issue of the magazine. It doesn’t go into criticism the magazine received from the conservative group One Million Moms.)

Art Director Patrick Greenish Jr., who has evidently just recently come on at the time of the filming, talks about how he cleaned up the look of the magazine, with a more consistent use of fonts and colors. We also see him dealing with freelance artists, including a self-described “hipster Brooklyn” cartoonist.

That cartoonist, Neil Numberman, tells the filmmakers that Highlights is especially sensitive about any objects appearing too close to a subject’s crotch in any drawing. “That’s the funniest feedback I ever got,” he says.

The Honesdale editorial offices, which local schoolchildren visit on field trips, seems to keep Highlights anchored in a wholesome environment. Editors sometimes visit nearby schools to field test certain features with the target audience.

The filmmakers also visit the more traditional corporate offices in Columbus, Ohio, of Highlights for Children Inc., where back-office functions of the privately held company are conducted, such as circulation. (The magazine accepts no advertising.)

That office building seems pretty big for the quaint little children’s magazine being worked on every month by the earnest editors in Pennsylvania. The documentary only touches on just how big an enterprise the publisher has become, with a curriculum arm (Zaner-Bloser), a professional development publishing arm for teachers (Stenhouse Publishers), and other publishing imprints.

We meet Publisher Kent S. Johnson in the Columbus offices, who talks about the challenges a print publication faces when more children can’t keep their hands off their own or their parents’ digital devices.

“We’re losing kids a little bit younger than we used to,” he says in the film. Even his 12-year-old son has questioned whether there will be print magazines by the time he becomes an adult.

The documentary visits the hip San Francisco web development company that is working with Highlights on a digital app version of the magazine.

Cully, the editor in chief, tells the filmmakers that she feels a great responsibility at the helm of a magazine with such a long history and special niche. Childhood, she points out, is “a short, sweet season.”

“44 Pages” perhaps could have benefited from an outside voice to discuss the state of children’s magazine publishing or the changes wrought by digital devices. (Besides an executive with the San Francisco digital concern that is working with Highlights, the only other outside voice in the film is a librarian at Ohio State, where the magazine’s archives were donated some time ago and are now used widely by researchers.)

But the documentary is clearly a labor of love about an enduring, and endearing, American institution.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.