IF anything can motivate even the most reluctant youngsters to read, it's their own version of a well-known national magazine, written in a style and language they can understand, and dealing with one of their favorite subjects - sports. That's the premise behind the latest weapon in the battle against illiteracy - Sports Illustrated for Kids. And first reports indicate that the new, junior-style version of Sports Illustrated is a big hit with its audience of mostly elementary schoolchildren.
``It's the first time I ever read a sports magazine,'' said a fourth-grade girl at the Maurice J. Tobin School in Boston's Roxbury section. ``It's fun; it has wonderful stories; it teaches lessons.''
Ellen Shepherd, principal of the Kempton Elementary School in New Bedford, Mass., discovered similar excitement at her school.
``I happened to walk in on our sixth-grade class just a couple of minutes after the teacher had distributed the magazine,'' she says. ``The children were ecstatic; they were just overwhelmed. One of them was already tearing out the cards [there's a page of sports cards for trading and collecting], so I said, `Wait until your mother and father at least see the magazine before you start pulling it apart.'''
A four-color publication that outwardly resembles Sports Illustrated, the new magazine presents an editorial mix geared to the tastes and reading level of young children, with larger print and more illustrations.
``The kids seem very excited to get a magazine that they recognize as an adult magazine, but that is written specifically for them,'' said Jean Egan, director of instruction at the Tobin School.
The magazine started up this month with an initial circulation of 500,000, divided equally between paid, in-home subscriptions and copies donated to 250,000 students at some 1,200 public schools around the nation.
``Illiteracy is growing at an alarming rate,'' says publisher Ann Moore in explaining the philosophy behind the project. ``... That's why we've got to reach out to kids to help make reading a fun and meaningful part of their lives.''
RECIPIENTS of the free copies were identified by sending applications to school principals in districts where the poverty level is 25 percent or more among students as designated by the 1980 census. The grant schools represent every state in the nation, with heavy concentrations in such urban areas as Brooklyn, the Bronx, Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Detroit.
``It's the first and only broad-based sports magazine created for boys and girls 8 years old and up,'' managing editor John Papanek says. ``We will emphasize the fun and value of the entire range of sports - from pro football to Frisbee - for young athletes and fans.''
A glance at the inaugural issue shows the diversity of material offered in the magazine's attempt to reach a wide audience while appealing as strongly as possible to the inner-city children who make up a large portion of the targeted group.
Pro basketball star Michael Jordan is pictured on the cover with two young children and is the subject of the featured story, which deals extensively with his growing-up years in Wilmington, N.C. The Super Bowl is also highlighted with a largely pictorial feature looking ahead to this year's game plus a reminiscence by last year's most valued player, Doug Williams.
``I like the stories, the cards, the posters, and especially about amazing Michael,'' said a fifth-grade boy at the Tobin School.
``It was something new for me,'' added a female schoolmate. ``I learned about Magic Johnson. He's great. I never knew he liked songs by Michael Jackson - just like me.''
Like its parent magazine, Sports Illustrated for Kids balances its coverage of big-time spectator sports by going off the beaten track for a variety of human interest stories.
The first issue, for example, offers a major spread on dog-sled racer Susan Butcher replete with appealing photos of her and her canine companions; a story on two 10-year-olds who got a chance to watch a football game from the Goodyear Blimp; a fiction piece; and a number of shorter features.
``The interest goes across all levels,'' says Hazel Reamer, who serves as a reading coordinator for some Boston schools. ``And [students] can work as partners because of the content.''
IN an attempt to guide and satisfy its young audience at the same time, the magazine also offers a fascinating feature called Hotshots, which gives brief biographies of young achievers. (The first issue featured Sara Fallico, an 11-year-old girl who broke most of the Alaska state swimming records for her age group; Danny Rapp, a 13-year-old hockey star from Rockport, Mass.; and Lenny Ng, an amazing 12-year-old Chapel Hill, N.C., youngster who demonstrates how the enjoyment of sports can be combined with academic and cultural achievements.
Lenny loves soccer, tennis, and basketball, the story says, also plays the violin and piano at an award-winning level, and in sixthgrade took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (which high school students take before they apply to college) and scored a perfect 800 in the math section. Now an 8th-grader, he is already taking calculus and chemistry classes at the high school and another math class at the University of North Carolina.
The idea, of course, is to give kids stories that hold their interest as well as present the right sort of role models. But in addition to providing a valuable community service, the magazine is also expected it to be a commercial success.
``The youth market is increasing both in size and influence,'' points out Donald J. Barr, publisher of the parent Sports Illustrated. ``Not only do children between 9 and 12 spend over $4.7 billion of their own funds annually, but research indicates that they directly influence parental spending of over $40 billion a year. If you add to that their potential as a future market, it's easy to see why so many blue-chip companies have signed up as charter advertisers of SI for Kids.''
Adds Ms. Moore:
``Primary research with children, their parents, and teachers gives us great confidence that we have found a void in the market - that our product concept is exciting, and that the need for fun, inspirational teaching materials in our public schools is real. Everyone wins with this product. Children will love reading it, grandparents will feel good giving it as a gift, and sponsors will sell products with it.''