History magazine for young people tells it like it was
Peterborough, N.H. — Hope Pettegrew and Frances Nankin started out with a good idea, little money, and virtually no experience. Defying almost every harsh reality of the publishing world, they have ended up with a successful American history magazine for children.
The good idea that these two former elementary school teachers brought to fruition is called Cobblestone, an attractive monthly magazine designed to inform and entertain young people in late elementary school and junior high. In the year that the magazine has been published, the list of young subscribers has grown from 2,500 to 26,000.
From the magazine's inauspicious beginning has come an equally inauspicious present. Ms. Pettegrew, the publisher, works out of a tiny office tucked into the tidy business district of this small New England town. Ms. Nankin, with the aid of an assistant, handles the editing and layout in the "home office," -- her own home.
But despite conditions that make Cobblestone quite literally a cottage industry, its lively format and appealing use of paintings, etchings, and historic photographs make it as professional as any of the magazines produced by the multicorporate publishing empires of midtown Manhattan. It is to the historical content, however, that its cofounders attribute its growing success.
"We both recognized that there was a dearth of periodicals on American history for children," says Frances Nankin, cozily ensconced near the radiator in her confounder's office. "It was also our feeling that the upper elementary schools are quite experience in teaching history. That was certainly our experience as kids. When we came to American history as adults and discovered how exciting it can be, we were amazed at what we had missed."
Hope Pettegrew became concerned with how American history is taught during the years of protest over the Vietnam war. "Even though a lot of it was justifiable, the lack of patriotic feeling among young people saddened me," she says. "I wished kids could know that despite national mistakes and problems they have a heritage worth appreciating."
"There were so many myths that children had to deal with about American history, the ones about perfect forefathers who never told lies, that they became disillusioned and had to throw those myths off," says Ms. Nankin, who came of age during the protest years. "We wanted to help children start out right, without all those myths."
So armed with good intentions and little else, the two women met for long hours in libraries, researching and jotting ideas down on legal pads. But when it came time to apply for bank loans, they found their requests were not taken seriosly, much less granted.
"I think two men making a similar proposal might have been able to pull it off," says Ms. Pettegrew. "But as we were two womenm trying to launch a children'sm magazine, we were all but patted on the head."
But by forming a corporation in June of 1979 they were soon able to interest enough investors in raising $110,000, a small sum for starting a magazine, which usually costs $500,000 to several million. A direct mail proposal sent to 100, 000 households solicited the first 2,500 subscribers.
Both women attribute their ability to surmount that crucial period to their husbands, who supported the demanding new venture without reservation. "My husband had no qualms about investing our own money in the project," recalls Ms. Nankin. "He just said, 'I've taken risks for my career, why shouldn't we take one for yours?'"
Now she finds he is also willing to care to their baby daughter, who was born about the same time as the magazine, while his wife is busy planning the next issues. Hope Pettegrew found her family equally supportive, including a teen-aged daughter who works in the office after school.
While the women found their teaching background a help in shaping the content of the magazine, they credit their experience as homemakers to surmounting the shaky financial start. "As a housewife I knew all about being frugal, about getting the most out of every dollar," says Ms. Pettegrew. "It didn't faze me to do without a fancy office, a big staff or salary. I think it would have been far more difficult for a man accustomed to those conditions to cope."
One aspect of Cobblestone's format that adds to the financial challenge is that it contains no advertising. All revenue comes from the $15 a year subscription fee. Both women feel this is a necessary situation to maintain complete editorial control and credibility with educators.
One editorial decision has been to devote each issue to a single event or historical figure, with articles tracing different aspects or viewpoints of that theme. For example, last September's issue devoted to the Lewis and Clark expedition starts with an overview of the journey and then includes biographical features on the two explorers, Thomas Jefferson, Sacajawea, a little-known black man named York who proved heroic on the expedition, and Lewis's dog Scannon, the group mascot. Even a crossword puzzle, comic strip, vocabulary list, and mapmaking project carry out the theme.
"We think the one-theme-per-issue format is important because it shows kids that each event has many sides, that history isn't just what one person recounts in a textbook," says Ms. Nankin. "In our issue on the Boston Massacre, for instance, we showed that there are some extremely different accounts of what had taken place. We hope it will encourage kids to question and explore, not just go by hearsay."
Other issues have centered around the Civil War, the Grand Canyon, the founding of Connecticut, early American games, and Harriet Tubman. Besides articles, the magazine uses maps, time-lines, short stories, music, and recipes that put events in a cultural context.
To encourage further study, each issue of Cobblestone also includes two reading lists -- one for children and one for adults. Parents and teachers, it turns out, are among the most avid readers. "One woman tells me that she hides it from her son until she has read it through herself," says Ms. Pettegrew.
Along with appreciative letters from children and adults, the women have been besieged with proposals for supplementary products and pleas that they change their slant to women's or world history. "What has happened is that we've touched on a market that is so devoid that people want us to do everything," says Ms. Nankin. "But we find just trying to provide a balanced view of American history is more than enough."