THE market for children's magazines is booming. And Highlights for Children, which pioneered the industry and just celebrated its 500th issue, is quietly leading the pack.
When Highlights was founded 47 years ago, it was "the sole ranger in the field," says Samir Husni, a magazine expert at the University of Mississippi. "Now we have an explosion of children's magazines."
Yet Highlights remains "a breed apart from everything else," Mr. Husni says. Many of the new magazines are based on television shows or cartoon characters. "They have a fantasy factor attached to them that's absent from Highlights for Children."
The magazine was created by Garry and Caroline Myers, educators and grandparents who wanted to produce a general-interest periodical "dedicated to helping children grow." Today, the magazine is run by several of the Myers' grandchildren.
Through the years, Highlights has helped educate several generations of children and turned itself into the largest-circulation children's periodical in the United States.
"The baby boomers remember the magazine from their own childhoods," Husni says.
In June 1946, the Myers printed 20,000 copies of the first Highlights issue; not all of the copies were sold.
In May, the magazine mailed its 500th issue to 2.6 million subscribers. There's been a steady growth in circulation through the decades.
The magazine's motto is "Fun with a Purpose."
"Everything in Highlights has, broadly speaking, an educational value," says Kent L. Brown Jr., editor of the magazine and grandson of its founders. "We're positioned between sheer entertainment, which is all fun, and education and pedagogy, which is not necessarily fun for everybody."
"Highlights for Children is like The New Yorker," Husni says. "You don't buy it to skim it. You have to read it; you have to do the activities."
Mr. Brown, however, says the editorial goal is to provide something for everyone.
The magazine targets children aged 2 to 12. Providing material for such a wide age range is a "pretty aggressive task," Brown says. "Of the children's periodicals in America, we have the broadest age range. Children of different ages use the magazine at different levels. A seven-year-old might read a story in Highlights, a four-year-old might have it read to him."
Many of the magazine's popular features have remained through the decades, and the magazine has changed relatively little over the years.
Hidden Pictures, a full-page drawing with cleverly disguised smaller drawings, continues to be a favorite. Goofus and Gallant, the twins who show the right and wrong way to behave, still make an appearance in every issue. And the Timbertoes, a family of little wooden people, haven't stopped entertaining new readers.
"Our job at the first issue, as now, is to develop thoughtful, literate citizens and readers," Brown says. "Measured graphically, and in terms of the number of different features that we've introduced, we've changed immensely. But I measure by intent and philosophy, and measured that way, we have not wavered."
The Columbus, Ohio-based magazine is sold almost exclusively through mail subscriptions and has never carried advertising. The company currently is experimenting with a program to display Highlights on newsstands.
The flurry of new magazines for children does not concern Brown. "The biggest competitors to children's magazines are other things," he says. "Our competitors are nonprint: computer games, television, and sleep."
In spite of its wide circulation, Highlights has not reached beyond the more educated, upper- and middle-class American families.
"That's a frustration to us," Brown says. "We're exploring a program right now to get Highlights more widely disseminated to kids who need it the most."