10 Surprising Facts About Highlights Magazine

44 Pages
44 Pages

The inside-look-at-a-venerable-publication is a burgeoning documentary subgenre thanks to hits like The September Issue (2009) and Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011). Even still, there’s a certain cognitive dissonance in hearing that there’s a new film documenting the long-running kids' magazine Highlights for Children. After all, how much drama could there be in a colorful, inoffensive mag best known for its hidden picture puzzles, lesson-based comics like Goofus and Gallant and The Timbertoes, and its permanent residency in dentists' offices across America? A great deal, it turns out.

Director Tony Shaff’s 44 Pagescurrently playing at New York City’s IFC Center, streaming on select networks, and playing on demand—is a 90-minute fly-on-the-wall account of the Highlights staff putting together their June 2016 issue, which marked the magazine’s 70th anniversary. It’s pretty standard stuff: how stories get picked, finding illustrators, staring down deadlines. Full disclosure: I have worked in editorial roles at Scholastic News, Sports Illustrated Kids, and Time for Kids. There are certainly huge differences between those publications and Highlights, but the way the documentary conveys the experience of working for an outlet like this one—and the responsibilities that come with it—is accurate and honest and an important addition to the inside-media documentary canon.

But where the film soars is in its exploration of the magazine’s history and perpetual resonance. Founded in 1946 by husband-and-wife team Dr. Garry Cleveland and Caroline Myers, Highlights and its “Fun with a Purpose” tagline were created to give children a magazine full of encouragement and guidance.

Originally intended for kids ages two to 12, it currently serves those ages six to 12 and grapples with the issues young people face every day—not only traditional ones, such as best friend conflicts, but new challenges like digital overload. The magazine is a constant, steadying influence in the lives of children, and it holds an outsized place in their lives. The scenes in the film of kids meeting editors or touring Highlights’s offices in Honesdale, Pennsylvania—and of adults engaging with the magazine years after they first read it—are touching and reaffirming.

The film is also chockablock with insight, trivia, and, at times, tragedy about what made—and makes—Highlights a force in the lives of kids, and culture generally, around the world. Here are 10 of our favorites.

1. MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS RESUSCITATED HIGHLIGHTS.

A work-in-progress issue of Highlights Magazine is circulated for notes at the Highlights editorial offices in Honesdale, PA. (2016)
44 Pages

It’s a pop culture joke at this point how ubiquitous Highlights is in doctor and dentist offices. (Everyone from The Simpsons to Parks & Recreation has riffed on it.) But without the medical community, there would absolutely not be a Highlights today. About four years into the magazine's launch, the Myers were out of money. Their son, Garry Jr.—then a 28-year-old aeronautical engineer—took a six-month leave from his job to help his parents wind the business down.

“Instead, when he got there and he started looking into it, he decided that he could make it go,” Garry Jr.'s daughter Pat Mikelson, who is now Highlights’s historian and archivist, said in the documentary. “My dad rolled out this program to put Highlights into doctors' and dentists' offices and that really is what made Highlights take off and sustain us so we could earn enough money that we could definitely grow and continue.”

2. THE MAGAZINE—AND THE FAMILY RUNNING IT—WERE ROCKED BY UNIMAGINABLE DISASTER.

Ten years after Garry Jr. saved Highlights, the company had reached 500,000 subscribers and he was thinking of expanding its reach. On December 16, 1960, Myers, his wife Mary, and vice president Cyril Ewart boarded a plane in Columbus, Ohio, bound for New York for a meeting about getting the magazine on newsstands. “They went into New York in a snowstorm,” Mikelson recalled. “And there was a mid-air collision between two planes. One of the planes landed on a street in Brooklyn ... Everyone on those airplanes lost their lives.”

The crash between the United Airlines DC-8 and a TWA Super Constellation is one of the most notorious and tragic aviation disasters in American history. Mikelson and her four siblings went to live with an uncle in Texas while her grandparents—who by this time were in their 70s—stepped in to help guide the magazine. “Highlights survived," Mikelson said. "My grandparents just decided they were going to go forward. As a family, it was very difficult, and it was for many years. But we all made it through.”

Today, the company is still a family business: CEO Kent S. Johnson is the great-grandson of Garry C. and Carolyn Myers.

3. EARLY ISSUES DREW CONTENT FROM A HOLY SOURCE. SEVERAL OF THEM, ACTUALLY.

Highlights has a long tradition of helping kids point their moral compass in the direction of goodness (see: Goofus and Gallant). And in the early days, that mission included publishing passages from the Bible. But the goal was never to push one ideology: Bible stories ran alongside pieces on other world religions, such as Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. “I was actually very shocked," art director Patrick Greenish Jr. admitted. "For some odd reason, I always thought Highlights was a Christian brand. And they're not. Having good morals doesn't mean you have to be Christian. It's just knowing right from wrong. It's essentially what it boils down to.”

4. IT HAS FEATURED SOME MAJOR CONTRIBUTORS.

Dave Justice, Senior Production Artist prepares an issue for review at the Highlights editorial offices in Honesdale, PA in 2016.
Senior production artist Dave Justice prepares an issue for review at the Highlights editorial offices in Honesdale, Pennyslvania.
44 Pages

If a magazine is as old as Highlights, chances are good that some pretty big names will have passed through its pages. To wit: Highlights has published poems from Lewis Carroll, Carl Sandburg, Ogden Nash, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and Rita Dove. At one point in 44 Pages, we see a layout with a story bylined Robert Louis Stevenson. And later, editor-in-chief Christine French Cully shares with editor Judy Burke a gem she unearthed from the archives: a letter from Highlights editor Walter B. Barre, dated February 6, 1968, buying a piece from Walter Cronkite titled "Political Conventions." "We are happy to purchase all rights including copyright to this manuscript for the sum of $200,” Barre wrote. (It’s unclear whether the piece ever ran.)

5. YOU WON'T FIND ANY STORIES ABOUT WITCHES IN HIGHLIGHTS'S PAGES.

One of the realities of working for a children's publication is that you inevitably steer clear of some topics, or at least give them more thought than you would at a general audience publication. One potential minefield is holidays: You don’t want to alienate anyone or make them feel like their celebration is less important than another. So it makes sense when Highlights senior editor Joëlle Dujardin explained that the magazine does not publish fiction pieces about Santa Claus. Stories about witches are another no-go zone, which also tracks; there are a lot of people who don’t want their kids exposed to the supernatural, but that’s not why Highlights avoids them.

“We don't cover [witches] to respect the Wiccan community's feelings about witches and the portrayal of them as being dark and scary, whereas a lot of Wiccan people are not,” Dujardin says. “No witches, no Santa, no child trafficking.” (That last one seems obvious, but in the documentary we see Dujardin reading a kid-submitted a story about children being kidnapped.)

6. GOOFUS AND GALLANT USED TO BE MORE TOLKIEN THAN KIDS-NEXT-DOOR.

Goofus and Gallant is one of the perennial features of Highlights, a comic strip featuring two boys who represent very clear sides of a challenge. “Here's the bad choice, here's the good choice,” assistant editor Annie Beer Rodriguez explained. Added Mikelson: “Goofus is the bad and Gallant is the good, always.”

The characters first appeared in 1940 in Children’s Activities, the magazine Garry C. Myers worked on before creating Highlights with his wife. But their didactic adventures originally had a more fantastic bent: They first appeared as little elves, before becoming more recognizably human in 1950.

7. THE HIDDEN PICTURE PUZZLES COME WITH SPECIFIC RULES.

Hidden Pictures Illustrator Neil Numberman works at his studio in Brooklyn, NY (2016
Hidden Pictures illustrator Neil Numberman works at his studio in Brooklyn.
44 Pages

Illustrator Neil Numberman—a self-professed Brooklyn hipster artist—has contributed numerous pieces to Highlights, including Hidden Pictures, mazes, word searches, and crossword puzzles. As a result, he has gained some unique insights into what works—and what really, really doesn’t—when it comes to those venerable Hidden Picture puzzles.

Highlights took us out to a retreat, and it was literally a Hidden Pictures class,” Numberman said. “You can have more difficult ones and easier ones in an illustration. They actually prefer that so that the kid will find something easily and then start to get engaged with the piece. They want the hidden objects to stay away from the crotch. That's the funniest feedback. Sometimes I'll have a rooster and he'll have a tail and I'll say that could be a glove. But since the glove is coming out of the butt, you can't do that.”

8. EDITORS TAKE THEIR RESPONSIBILITY TO YOUNG READERS VERY SERIOUSLY.

“We get about 3,000 Dear Highlights letters a year,” Reader Mail coordinator Patty Courtright said. “We reply to every letter that we receive from a child. I believe that we're the only magazine who writes to a child every time one writes.” That dedication has made Highlights a vital outlet for children.

“We know that they're writing to us with a real issue that is very serious to them,” editorial assistant Allison Kane said. And sometimes, the issues are capital-S serious. “If it's a real touchy situation,” like running away, abuse, or divorce, “we put a red sticker on those and try to respond to those as soon as possible,” Courtright explained. “A little girl said she was being abused by her babysitter and she was told not to tell anybody and this child confided in us. She didn't know what to do. That was a case where we got the authorities involved and the mother was so thankful because she had no clue, of course, that this was going on.” The experience really shook Courtright, but “then I realized, thank god the child felt that she could write to us.”

9. HIGHLIGHTS MIGHT HAVE HELPED JAYCEE DUGARD AND HER KIDS.

"Dear Highlights" isn’t the only section of the magazine with the potential to impact kids’ lives in major ways. "Ask Arizona"—an advice column penned by the fictional character Arizona, who answers imaginary letters based on real kid submissions—is a relatively new creation. Author Lissa Rovetch has written more than 140 of them, and they can address big topics like transgender issues and scary environmental problems. “I know that it makes a difference for kids all over the world,” Rovetch explained. “Several years ago, a girl was kidnapped. For many years, she lived in somebody's backyard and he raped her and she had his two little girls. She was allowed very, very few things from the outside world, and one of the things was Highlights magazine. So the idea, for me, that my stories about how to be a kind, real, feeling, decent human being in the world and it's OK to be scared, it's OK to be nervous, it's OK to be angry, these little girls got that was incredibly moving to me."

10. IF YOU'VE EVER SENT A LETTER OR ARTWORK TO HIGHLIGHTS, YOU’RE IN THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES.

Annie Beer Rodriguez, Assistant Editor shows off a child’s submission to Highlights Magazine at the editorial offices in Honesdale, PA (2015)
Highlights assistant editor Annie Beer Rodriguez shows off a child’s submission to the magazine.
44 Pages

If you read Highlights as a kid, you probably submitted a poem or story or letter or drawing, hoping to one day see your name or work in your favorite magazine. (Submissions are still rolling in: Dujardin says they get 300 fiction pieces a month.) Even if you got a reply from an editor, odds are you didn’t get published in Highlights. But here’s some long-game validation: Highlights saved everything—everything—and, about a decade ago, donated its archive, spanning the years 1946 to 2007, to Ohio State University.

“We received about 300 different pallets from the Highlights company,” Deidra Herring, Ohio State's education librarian and associate professor, said. “Every single letter that a child ever wrote, we have acquired.” They also got any kid-submitted art and company philosophy documents. The archive is a boon to researchers, especially of childhood development, which is a pretty good second life for all that adolescent creative energy and angst.

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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