Museum-backed newspaper for kids stirs lively response

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In May 1978, Suzanne Thumhart was asked by the Children's Museum of Denver to design a "family publication" to replace its old newsletter. The museum hoped to increase museum membership, generate "through the door" traffic, and enhance the museum's image in the community so its effort to improve itself financially could progress more quickly. Six months later "Boing!" -- a 24- page newspaper "by, for, and about kids" -- appeared, with an initial circulation of 100,000.

Now the bimonthly tabloid-size paper -- which fulfilled all the museum goals -- is national, sponsored by at least 23 museums from California to Rhode Island , and has a circulation of over 1.2 million.

Mrs. Thumhart says part of Boing!'s appeal is that kids like to pretend that they're grown up -- reading a real newspaper. Boing! is one of the only juvenile publications to try to incorporate a number of elements found in a typical newspaper and to give the appearance of being an adult paper.

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"We felt it was very important to encourage reading," Mrs. Thumhart says. "I also wanted to brighten the day of the average elementary school youngster. My son was in the fourth grade at the time, and his life was not always bright. We wanted the paper to be highly readable, highly appealing, and to be theirs."

The central age group is Grades 3 to 6, but in the hands of a really good teacher or parent, children as young as kindergarten can use it, Mrs. Thumhart says. In fact, one page is now designed specifically for primary grades.

Most copies are distributed free by children's museums through public and private schools and other institutions serving children. But individual subscriptions are also available. Most of these are from older relatives who have seen the paper in their area and want it for nieces and nephews or grandchildren who live in areas where Boing! is not yet distributed.

Does the paper make money? "Sometimes," according to Mrs. Thumhart. In Denver, she says, the paper has generated money for the museum. And in most areas, local advertising usually helps finance the operation and at least keep it from being much of a money loser.

Mike Coffman, director of program services at the Jacksonville (FLa.) Museum of Arts and Sciences, is editor of the local Boing! edition and now gets letters addressed to "Mr. Boing." He says he is very pleased with the response the paper gets. Since the museum is able to put in a "what's happening at the museum" section, museum programs get a good number of Boing! readers coming to see them. He says advertisers, too, have been pleased with the responses they've gotten, and the costs of publishing the paper there are more than covered by advertising revenue.

The paper is a comfortable blend of core material (written by Mrs. thumhart) from the Children's Museum in Denver and local material from the area museum sponsor. A local contact in New Mexico also scored a coup by getting Judy Blume , a noted children's author, involved. "Blume N-Kids," a question-and-answer column, is now a regular -- and much-read -- feature in all editions.

While some of Boing!'s articles deal with such things as National Pretzel Week, Responsible Pet Care Week, picking and drying herbs, and a 13-year-old girl who's a junior rodeo champion, many deal with more serious subjects. In one issue, for instance, the problem of child abuse was dealt with, and children were told where they should go for help if faced with that situation. A solar energy invention contest was held last year, and now an "adopt a critter" program is being planned.

"One of the aims of the paper is to let kids feel that they can have an impact on the world around them," says Mrs. Thumhart. "I want to work with all the people who are supporting projects to preserve endangered species, all the way from Ranger Rick folks to the Audubon Society, in a program where kids can form groups to sponsor one of the endangered species -- animals, fish, fowl, anything. They can raise money, do plays, whatever they want to try to make the adult world aware of these creatures, where they are, and the threat to their well-being."

Mrs. Thumhart says the response to the paper is great. On an average day she'll get 25 to 50 letters from young readers saying anything from "We love your paper. We hope you'll continue to do it" to "You had a mistake on Page 2."

"We try to answer those, because it means that they're paying real close attention," she says with a laugh.

Getting the youngsters involved in what's happening is a key goal, she says. "It's heavily participatory, and we regularly run things to get the kids to respond, which will generate a response from us back to them." And since kids love to get things in the mail, one segment, "Freebees and Cheapos," lists places where readers can obtain anything from "15 Recipes for Popcorn Lovers" (free) to membership in "The Official Star Wars Fan Club" ($5).

In a recent issue a new feature was started: Nominate a super teacher for "teacher of the issue" and a super adult for "super adult of the issue."

"We've just been overwhelmed," says Mrs. Thumhart. "There are a lot of groovy adults out there that a bunch of kids really like."

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