It can be hard to stay relevant in the ever-changing world of children's entertainment, but Highlights For Children magazine has lasted for generations by sticking to the formula of mixing fun with learning.
As Emily Burkhalter's third grade class at Evening Street Elementary School in Worthington, Ohio, is enjoying a free reading period, a top choice among the students is Highlights.
The kids are quick to list off their favorite parts of the magazine, from the articles to the puzzles. The most popular feature among the students is "Hidden Pictures," the visual puzzle that challenges kids to find small pictures inside a larger scene.
Christine French Cully, Highlights' editor-in-chief, says it's one of several legacy features that are recurring elements of the magazine.
"They're nonnegotiable, they're in every issue. So for example, we always have a Hidden Pictures in every issue of Highlights, in fact, there's been a Hidden Pictures in every issue of highlights since June 1946," says French Cully, who adds that part of their success is due to these recurring games and stories.
Other legacy features include "The Timbertoes," an illustrated comic centered around a wood-carved family, which debuted in Highlights in 1951.
Then there's "Goofus and Gallant," a comic featuring two contrasting characters: Goofus modeling bad behavior, and Gallant modeling good. They first appeared in the pages of Highlights, as elves, in 1948.
"Part of its appeal to young children is its lack of ambiguity," says French Cully. "I mean it's a little black and white. It's practice for the big, harder moral decisions that are going to come later."
Kent Johnson, Highlights' CEO, explains more of what Goofus and Gallant are trying to teach children.
"We're always aspiring to be our Gallant, but also if I do something that's a little Goofus how do I make up for it? How do I apologize? How do I make things right?" Johnson asks.
Johnson knows a thing or two about "Goofus and Gallant." His great-grandfather, Garry Cleveland Myers, created the comic and founded Highlights for Children with his wife Caroline just after World War II.
He says the secret to Highlights' longevity is to constantly remain focused on their number one priority: kids.
"I think adults believe that everything's changed for kids, we've got devices and it's busy and all these things," Johnson says. "But what we know is kids still have some of the same issues they've had since 1946. How do I get along with my siblings? What happens when I have a falling out with my best friend? Those things are universal. Those things aren't changing."
Ellen Barrett is a family development specialist with the nonprofit group Family Connections, in the Cleveland area. She says kids face all sorts of fast-paced entertainment with video games and movies. But Highlights found a way to slow things down and still capture kids' attention, with short articles and puzzles.
"Being able to do something, come back to it, seeing where you left off and where your work was, and then pick up where you left off I think is a really important part of how Highlights magazine can help with brain development," Barrett says.
But that doesn't mean Highlights isn't evolving.
The company has mobile apps, websites, a podcast, and a tablet version of the magazine.
"In terms of digital, we definitely bring the same experience that the magazine brings to life in a digital format," said Kerstin Reinhart, the director of digital business for Highlights. "We are creating those deeply engaging and fun, enriching experiences. It just happens to be in a different medium."
Johnson says being around as long as Highlights has means grappling with change without changing the foundation of who they are as a company.
"I often say inside the company...'we're not a magazine company,' and in fact, we never were," Johnson says. "If we keep in mind that we're not committed to magazines, we're not committed to a certain product type or technology, what we're committed to is making a positive impact on children, that frees us up to think, 'what has to stay the same?' Certain values, certain beliefs about children stay the same. Everything else can change."
And Highlights isn't turning away from its paper-based platform. In fact, it has other titles that are also distributed, such as High 5, which is geared for toddlers and Hello, a nearly indestructible book made for babies.
Meanwhile, Emily Burkhalter says getting students to read is a vital part of learning for third graders, and having Highlights in the classroom is a useful tool.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In the ever-changing world of children's entertainment, Highlights magazine has stayed a constant. You might have grown up reading it. Your grandparents might have grown up reading it. Your kids might be reading it right now. Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow looks at the key to the magazine's success, a formula that mixes fun with learning.
ANDY CHOW, BYLINE: It's reading time for Emily Burkhalter's third grade class at Evening Street Elementary School in Worthington.
CHOW: When it comes time to picking something to read, Highlights Magazine is a popular choice.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I like how it has, like, articles. And it has, like, little word searches.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: I like Goofus and Gallant.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I learned about the sea slug.
CHOW: Yep, the same magazine that was a mainstay in waiting rooms starting in the '50s is still going strong today. Its headquarters is in Columbus, Ohio. Editor-in-chief Christine French Cully says part of its popularity comes from recurring games and stories.
CHRISTINE FRENCH CULLY: They're non-negotiable. They're in each issue. So for example, we always have a hidden picture in every issue of Highlights. In fact, there's been a hidden picture in every issue of Highlights since June 1946.
CHOW: The popular visual puzzle that challenges kids to find small pictures inside a larger scene has been in the magazine for nearly 75 years. Since 1948, kids have been enjoying the parables of Goofus and Gallant, with Goofus modeling bad behavior and Gallant modeling good.
FRENCH CULLY: Part of its appeal to young children is its lack of ambiguity. It's a little black-and-white. It's practice for the big, harder moral decisions that are going to come later (laughter).
CHOW: Highlights CEO Kent Johnson's great-grandparents started the company shortly after World War II. He says Highlights, through games and stories, taps into the universal issues kids have always faced.
KENT JOHNSON: I think adults believe that everything's changed for kids. You know, we've got devices, and it's busy and all of these things. But what we know is kids still have some of the same issues they've had since 1946. How do I get along with my siblings? What happens when I have a falling out with my best friend? Those things are universal. Those things aren't changing.
CHOW: Ellen Barrett is a family development specialist with the group Family Connections in the Cleveland area. She says kids face all sorts of fast-paced entertainment with video games and movies, but Highlights found a way to slow things down and still capture kids' attention with short articles and puzzles.
ELLEN BARRETT: Being able to do something, come back to it, see where you left off and where your work was and then pick up where you left off, I think is a really important part of how Highlights magazine can help with brain development.
CHOW: Highlights is looking to maintain that vibe while evolving. It even has a podcast. Highlights' Kerstin Reinhart is product testing a mobile app that matches shapes to make an animal. For example, a heart and a triangle make a fish.
KERSTIN REINHART: Not only are they learning, but there's an interactive element to add the surprise and delight.
CHOW: Back in Emily Burkhalter's class, students are on a mission to discover more hidden pictures.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: I think it might be the paper airplane.
CHOW: Now, Goofus might think this is boring, but Gallant might see it as a fun way to work as a team.
For NPR News, I'm Andy Chow in Columbus.
(SOUNDBITE OF DATAROCK'S "FA-FA-FA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.