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Children's Magazine, Highlights, Stays Alive By Staying The Same

Cover of the first issue of Highlights magazine, and girl reading a current issue of Highlights
Cover of the first issue of Highlights magazine, and girl reading a current issue of Highlights

Josie Bailey is a rambunctious 4-year-old who loves playing with her younger brother in her backyard just outside of Columbus.

It’s sometimes a challenge, though, to get Josie to slow down and take a break. One thing that manages to capture her attention is a magazine.

“Josie will look at the same magazine every day and find new stuff,” said Mallory Bailey, Josie’s mother. “She gets really excited just recognizing different animals in the magazine.”

Josie Bailey, 4, reads an issue of High Five at her home outside of Columbus. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

It’s called High Five, and it’s the younger sister publication to the long-running Highlights magazine. Something that the Bailey’s love is that they also read Highlights growing up.

“I think the coolest thing about Highlights magazine is it still looks the same, it still feels the same,” said Mallory Bailey. “Whereas a lot of other things have kind of changed over time, I feel like they're enjoying the same magazine that we enjoyed as kids.”

That "same look and feel" Mallory describes isn’t an accident.

“There are certain things that appear in every issue of Highlights, we call those our ‘legacy features’ and they're non-negotiable, they're in each issue,” said Christine French Cully, Editor in Chief and Chief Purpose Officer at Highlights for Children.

“So, for example, we always have a Hidden Picture in every issue of Highlights. In fact, there's been a Hidden Picture in every issue of Highlights since June 1946, the very first one.”

The first Hidden Picture from the first issue of Highlights, published in 1946. [Highlights for Children]

Nearly 75 years ago, Highlights debuted its first magazine and its longest-running feature: Hidden Pictures, the visual puzzle that pushes kids to focus and find small pictures inside a larger scene.

But that’s not the only feature to stay consistent for generations.

Still in every issue is The Timbertoes – a simple illustrated story centered around a wood-carved family – which debuted in Highlights in 1951.

An excerpt of the original Mr. Timbertoe comic from 1951 (top), and an excerpt from a 2018 Timbertoes comic (bottom). [Highlights for Children]  

And, of course, the wholesome Goofus and Gallant, a comic featuring two contrasting characters: Goofus modeling bad behavior, and Gallant modeling good. They first appeared in the pages of Highlights in 1948 and are still a “legacy feature” today.

An excerpt from a 1961 edition of Goofus and Gallant. [Highlights for Children]

The long-term appeal of Goofus and Gallant is partly due to its lack of ambiguity, said French Cully. “It’s a little black and white. They’re everyday choices we have to make.  Do I give up my seat on the bus? Do I make this elderly person stand?” she said.

Christine French Cully, the Editor in Chief and Chief Purpose Officer of Highlights for Children. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

“It's practice for the big, harder moral decisions that are going to come later.”

“We're always aspiring to be our Gallant,” said Kent Johnson, CEO of Highlights for Children. “But, also, if I do something that's a little Goofus, how do I make up for it? How do I apologize? How do I make things right?”

Kent Johnson, the CEO of Highlights for Children. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

Johnson knows a thing or two about Goofus and Gallant. His great-grandfather, Dr. Garry Cleveland Myers, created the comic and founded Highlights magazine with his wife Caroline just after World War II.

Johnson said his great-grandparents weren’t your prototypical entrepreneurs. They started the business late in life, after long careers in education and child psychology.

Founders of Highlights magazine Garry and Caroline Myers. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

“And they poured all of that experience into creating Highlights magazine,” said Johnson.

Johnson said the mission of the business he runs today, headquartered in Columbus, has essentially stayed the same. They’re still committed to the idea that “children are the world’s most important people.” And the same tagline from 1946 still graces the cover of every issue: “fun with a purpose.”

Something else that hasn’t changed according to Johnson? Kids.

A young girl reads a Highlights magazine in 1966. [Highlights for Children]

“I think adults believe that everything's changed for kids. You know, the world's changed so quickly, being a child now has got to be so different,” said Johnson.

“But what we know is kids still have some of the same issues they've had since 1946. How do I get along with my siblings? What happens when I have a falling out with my best friend? Those things are universal. Those things aren't changing because technology or media changes.”

And French Cully says Highlights knows kids well – not through consultants or focus groups – but by communicating directly with them the old-fashioned way.

“We answer every letter and email we get from children, and we've done that for years,” she said.

A letter sent to Highlights magazine in 2014. French Cully says they read and respond to every email and letter they recieve from children. [Highlights for Children]

“You might be surprised to see the kinds of letters we get from kids. They write to us about their deeply-held hopes and dreams and fears. It's as if we are their very best friends. We learn a lot about kids from what kids tell us.”

Rather than take their word for it, we decided to visit a panel of experts.

Emily Burkhalter’s 3 rd grade class at Evening Street School – not too far from Highlights headquarters – had a lot to say about the magazine.

Students in Ms. Burkhalter's class at Evening Street Elementary School discuss the Hidden Pictures feature. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

One group of students loved telling each other the jokes they read in the magazine, others said they liked the “adventure” they read about in The Timbertoes, another loved learning about a glowing sea slug from one of the articles.  

But they were pretty unanimous about what they liked best: Hidden Pictures, the longest-running feature in the magazine was also the most popular among this crowd.

“I like them because you have to like focus on the little things instead of just the big things around,” said 8-year-old Juliet.  

8-year-old Juliet reads Highlights magazine in Ms. Burkhalter's class at Evening Street Elementary School. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

Ms. Burkhalter’s class was no stranger to the magazine – it’s been a familiar sight in classrooms and in doctor’s offices – by design -- since the 1950s. Garry Myers, Jr. saved his parent’s business from near-collapse when he came up with the simple, but effective method of getting the ad-free magazine in the right hands. 

But being where kids are in an increasingly digital world means expanding beyond the physical pages of a magazine.

Kerstin Reinhart, the Director of Digital Business for Highlights for Children plays the Highlights Monster Day app on a tablet. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

Highlights has two websites, a podcast, a handful of apps, and is further expanding its digital presence – but all with the same level of attention and scrutiny they’ve given their magazine for generations.

“In terms of digital, we definitely bring the same experience that the magazine brings to life in a digital format,” said Kerstin Reinhart, the Director of Digital Business for Highlights for Children. “We are creating those deeply engaging and fun, enriching experiences. It just happens to be in a different medium.”

Kerstin Reinhart, the Director of Digital Business for Highlights for Children plays one of the Highlights apps on a tablet in her office at Highlights headquarters in Columbus. [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

One feature that’s translated seamlessly to digital media: the beloved Hidden Pictures.

“I often say inside the company, so we're not a magazine company and in fact, we never were," said Johnson. “If we keep in mind that we're not committed to magazines, we're not committed to a certain product type or technology, what we're committed to is making a positive impact on children, that frees us up to think, ‘what has to stay the same?’ Certain values, certain beliefs about children stay the same. Everything else can change.”

It was with those values in mind, Johnson said, that Highlights decided to release a statement last June. It wasn’t directed at their young audience, but rather their adult followers on social media.

“As we thought more and more about our values and the idea that we think all kids should have access to the resources that help them become their best selves, we were internally looking out at the world and saying there's a situation where that's not the case,” said Johnson.

“And what we then concluded was maybe we could make a statement to help reframe the conversation around the impact our policies are having on kids.”

The letter specifically condemned the policy of separating immigrant children from their families, saying, “This is an appeal to elevate the inalienable right of all children to feel safe and have the opportunity to become their best selves.”

It made headlines and went viral, garnering over 23 thousand retweets.

“Our own kids in our community, whether it's here in Columbus, where I am or anywhere else, they're watching us as adults and they're taking lessons from whether we say or do anything about the things that maybe aren't quite as right as we'd like in our society,” said Johnson.

Back in Ms. Burkhalter’s class, the students are taking lessons from Highlights, whether they’re looking at it from behind a screen, or the way kids have been reading it since 1946.