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Magazines. Everything from T-shirts to outer space

By Gail PoolSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 1986

THE 20th century has not been kind to children's magazines. Comics, radio, and television have encroached upon their audience and profits. Critics have often judged them poor, compared with their 19th-century counterparts, particularly St. Nicholas (1873-1943), widely held to be the best children's magazine the United States has ever produced. Actually, there is quality to be found among contemporary children's magazines. But 19th-century literary models are inappropriate. In children's magazines, as in adults' magazines, fiction has taken a back seat to nonfiction these days. Not surprisingly, perhaps, in our information-oriented society, informational magazines seem predominant among newer children's titles, and it is among these that the best can be found.

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Two superb magazines started in recent years are Cobblestone: The History Magazine for Young People and Faces: The Magazine About People, both from Cobblestone Publishing in Peterborough, N.H. Cobblestone, started in 1979, is published monthly for children aged 8-14; Faces, founded in 1984, is published 10 times a year for children 8-10. Both these publications walk the tightrope between the educational and the enjoyable and maintain their balance admirably.

For those who think of history as a series of heroes, dates, and wars, Cobblestone may come as something of a shock. Themes of past issues (all issues are themed) have included `` `Read All About It!' The History of the Newspaper'' and ``Checking Out Libraries.'' Especially successful was ``American Clothing: Then and Now,'' which focused on clothing in relation to society and offered articles on the American clothing industry, clothing as identity (uniforms), clothing as rebellion (from Amelia Bloomer to hippies), and clothing for the disabled.

While Cobblestone does not ignore ``relevance'' (see, for example, the story of a high school student who went into fashion design) or entertainment (``Design Your Own T-Shirt''), the editors do not force the ``fun'' aspect of their material. Nor do they labor under the misconception that exclamation points generate excitement. They seem to assume that interesting material, provocatively discussed, will interest children. So far, the magazine is doing well. Cobblestone, like many other children's magazines, does not take advertising -- nor are advertisers overeager to reach its audience, says publisher Lyell Dawes. But Cobblestone's circulation now exceeds 40,000, split evenly between school and individual subscriptions.

Faces, published in cooperation with the American Museum of Natural History, does with anthropology what Cobblestone does with history. Edited for a slightly younger audience, Faces has more cartoons and action features (cutouts, games). But the format is similar.

In each issue a theme -- eggs, islands -- is explored through various cultures. A superlative issue was ``Our Elders'' (April), which talked about attitudes toward the elderly among the Masai, Koreans, American Indians. An article about Maggie Kuhn and the Gray Panthers, along with the fairy tale ``Grandfather's Advice,'' gently alerted young readers to the fact that the elderly are not always treated with respect, especially in the United States.

Carolyn Yoder, editor in chief of both Cobblestone and Faces, seems to believe that interest is more readily stimulated by ideas than by information alone, and is generated by the questions that are asked and how they are answered, both on and off the page.