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.
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.
This is a lesson that might be learned by other magazines for this age group. Odyssey, for example, ``The Young People's Magazine of Astronomy and Outer Space,'' takes what seems to me a narrow, fact-bound approach to its stimulating subject and seems grounded by pedestrian topics and dull writing. Missing are probing questions, provocative ideas, and imaginative spark. At the other extreme from the specialized Odyssey is the general-interest World, from National Geographic, with articles that seem thin and undemanding. Costumes, plaster casts, bubbles, are all treated briefly and mundanely. Even the nature pieces lack the magnificent photography one would expect from National Geographic, and which one finds in nature magazines for younger readers, such as Ranger Rick or the beautiful Scienceland. Given National Geographic's resources, which have undoubtedly helped World reach its 1.5 million circulation, this magazine seems a lost opportunity.
Both Cobblestone and Faces stir children to think about the world, and another magazine that does this very well -- though very differently -- is Penny Power. Penny Power, Consumer Union's Consumer Reports for Young People, confronts our consumer culture head-on. Accepting the fact that children are consumer-oriented, this bimonthly informs them about becoming intelligent consumers.
Unlike Consumer Reports, the emphasis here is less on evaluating specific products (although this is done) than on introducing children to the evaluation process. In ``The Jeans Shopping Spree,'' for example, children staged a fashion show of designer and inexpensive jeans (all unidentified) for a panel of their peers, who judged fit and value. Penny Power will not put Calvin Klein out of business, but it can make children aware of how they're spending money and why.
As part of its consumer education, Penny Power offers some first-rate articles on advertising. One, in the April-May issue, told how a girl who was angered by a misleading ad complained to the manufacturer. The article explained how and why ads may mislead, what powers the Federal Trade Commission has and doesn't have over advertising, and how to register a complaint. Another article detailed the making of a television commercial -- how long it took to make it, what it cost, how it was done. The article's tone was educational, not hostile. ``If you know how they work to persuade you,'' the author wrote, ``you might watch commercials more wisely.''
The trend toward informational magazines for children does not seem likely to abate. And in view of what passes for entertainment in this field -- TV-oriented magazines like Muppet, or product magazines like the sex-stereotyped Barbie, both from Telepictures Publications -- it may be just as well. The only danger, it seems to me, is that we may encourage children toward a tendency already present in our culture: to overvalue information, to see it as a panacea, to view facts, whether relevant, significant, or obscure, as blessed with intrinsic value. Cobblestone, Faces, and Penny Power avoid this pitfall. All three go beyond plain information, offering children a framework, a context in which the information they provide is meaningful. By doing so, they help our children distinguish between knowledge and the mastery of Trivial Pursuit.