Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin is joined by Betty Debnam, creator of the children's comic feature "The Mini Page."
Tobin and Debnam were online Friday, Sept. 5 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the art of cartooning and catering to a young audience.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Welcome, comics fans, to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today, we are pleased to have a hometown guest, Betty Debnam of the Mini Page, who is joining us from her studio here in D.C. Betty has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Newspaper Association of America and a membership in their Newspaper in Education Hall of Fame. Welcome, Betty, and thanks for joining us Live Online.
Betty Debnam: I am so pleased to be syndicated in The Post. I think of us as being an educational section. And we're delighted to be in the comics section, because we know it has such a large readership among readers of all pages.
Betty, whenever we've spoken on the phone, I can't help but notice your Southern accent. Where are you from originally?
Betty Debnam: I was born in Norfolk, Va., but moved to Raleigh, N.C., when I was about 12 years ago. So I consider myself a real Tarheel. I went to school at St. Mary's Junior College in Raleigh and from there I transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I got my degree in Political Science in the early fifties.
How do you think of a new idea for an issue each week?
Betty Debnam: We get our ideas from several sources. One of them is the yearly calendar. For example, we know teachers like stories about Halloween and Thanksgiving and we always love to celebrate Children's Book Week. We also know that each year usually has one event that all teachers are interested in finding out more information about. This year, for instance, it's the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers flight. So we are planning to do a story, working with the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, on their exhibit that will open in October. And we also are doing other stories about the Wright flight. I am visiting Kill Devil Hills, N.C., to do a story there on the Wright Memorial. I also hope to do a story about the plane and the how they were able to make it fly. We also get many suggestions from readers, who write in and let us know topics that are of interest to them. We were so pleased to hear from one of our newspapers, the Bangor Daily News, with a suggestion for a story, about puffins.
We love being in Washington because it has such wonderful news sources. We are so pleased at the reception the Mini Page receives whenever we call a museum, for instance, to do a story. People couldn't be more cooperative and they usually let us talk to their top curators and the curators are very, very generous with their time. One of the things that we do, and we started doing it years ago, is listing our sources in our stories, and always asking them to look over the issue before it is published to make certain our facts are correct. We feel very strongly about being correct in every thing we do, even if we draw a cartoon, we try to make it correct. So it's wonderful to have such cooperation.
Prairie Village, Kan.:
I'm a former teacher and love the Mini Page for my child. How did you make the change from teacher to entrepreneur? Do you still think of yourself as an educator or a business person or both?
Betty Debnam: In 1968, I had been teaching for about 11 years in Richmond and Raleigh. I had gotten my Master's degree in Education from Duke. I had been asked to serve on a Social Studies committee. Were it not for this invitation, I doubt very seriously that I ever would have started the Mini Page. I came up with an idea that I called the "mini-unit" and I still think it was a good idea. What I did was to spread a whole unit, or chart, about the subject the teachers wanted to cover out on a whole page so they could see it at a glance. Many teachers were enthusiastic, but the idea didn't get very far. Then one Thanksgiving, I was looking for information on the holiday, and most of the sources were in the library, locked in reference books, or in a few books on the holiday shelf. But I thought "Wouldn't it be great if the local newspaper was the source?" So I thought about putting basic information directed at children, but of use to teachers, in the newspaper. The first step was to get the name, The Mini Page, copyrighted. It was based on the mini-unit idea. The next step was to convince the Raleigh News and Observer, my local paper, to start it. I shall always be indebted to them.
I thought The Mini Page would give newspapers the opportunity to step into the field of elementary education and elementary education could start at any age. It would be a form of mass media education that would be delivered right to peoples' doorsteps. It would be tangible, unlike TV, it would not disappear as soon as you switched off the set. It would be easily available, and you wouldn't have to go to the library for basic information. There's often as much information in a Mini Page as you might find in a children's book on any topic. Classroom newspapers such as The Weekly Reader and Scholastic had been around for years, but I wanted the local newspaper to assume this role and to establish that bond with kids who were their future readers.
Finally, in 1977, the Universal Press Syndicate became interested in adding the Mini Page to its roster. And I have been with them for 26 years. As far as any business expertise, I was lucky enough to go with a wonderful syndicate that has handled the sales to newspapers. I owe a great deal to John McMeel and Kathy Andrews and Bob Duffy and all the sales staff at Universal. They are the real business key. Alan McDermott has been my editor for 25 years, and he is a wonderful editor and contributes a great deal to The Mini Page's success.
As for your last question, I still think of myself as an educator, mainly. The Mini Page has been tremendously successful for me. It's in around 500 newspapers. We will be celebrating 35 years next year, which I understand is rather amazing for a syndicated feature.
I love the simplicity of the Mini Page characters. They're not flashy and I like that. Did you model Alpha Betty after yourself or a relative?
Betty Debnam: No, I did not model Alpha Betty after me, but I must admit her interest in reading parallels mine.
Kansas City, Mo.:
I once heard the actor Sarah Jessica Parker say that she became an actor because as a child she was reading The Mini Page and begin to flip through the rest of the paper and came across ad for an audition. Do you ever hear from other famous people who grew up reading The Mini Page?
Betty Debnam: I think that she is a prime example of somebody that was a reader that we didn't know about. We would love to hear from any others, celebrities or not, that grew up reading The Mini Page. Often when I talk to people and tell them what I do, they tell me they grew up reading The Mini Page and it certainly means a great deal to me.
M...is for the Mini Page!
I...is for all the Information you get on the page!
N...is for the News you get on mediocre teen performers!
I...is for the occasional looks at states such as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Idaho!
P...is for the Puzzles that aren't found in the Mensa books!
A...is for Alaska, which is also sometimes featured!
G...is for Gallant, who reads the Mini Page, and not for Goofus, who only reads Rug Rats.
E...is for Everyone, because Everyone can read the Mini Page and enjoy it!
Thank you. I've always wanted to do that.
Betty Debnam: I could almost cry! I am so touched by that, that is wonderful!
Betty, I wondered if you had plans to write a book incorporating many of the Sunday mini pages? You have touched on every aspect of life, history, etc.
This would be a wonderful way for my children and all children to learn history in a fun and entertaining way.
I hope the Mini Page continues for years and years to come. Thank You
Betty Debnam: Thank you so much for that idea. We have put together a book of the Presidents and a book of the states. We also have a very successful activity book on how our government works. We have thought about compiling each year into an annual book, but as yet we haven't gotten around to it. If you are interested in Mini Page publications, you can write Universal Press Syndicate at 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111, or you can go to their Web site at www.uexpress.com.
Lee's Summit, Mo.:
I love The Mini Page, always have. What is the key to your success?
Betty Debnam: One of the keys is the sincere belief that I'm hopefully making a difference in educating our children and readers of all ages. That belief sends me from one Mini Page to the next. I also have a wonderful staff that has been with me for many years. Wendy Jamieson has been the artist for about 20 years. For many years, I did the art myself and then Wendy picked up the style and has done a beautiful job of copying that style. Lucy Lien has helped with research and writing for over 10 years. Tali Denton is a new member of the staff, who does the Rookie Cookie recipes, the puzzles and the entertainment and sports features. She replaced Anne Chamberlain who had been with us for over 23 years. They all make my job much easier.
I'm as old as the Mini page and even now still page through it pretty often. I was happy to see a whole issue devoted to North Dakota earlier this summer!;
My favorite part was looking for the word Mini in the cartoon search.
Betty Debnam: Thanks for the kind words. Mini Spy is very popular, and you're certainly not alone. I hear from many adults who are still interested in learning and so read The Mini Page each week. I think that is another key to our success.
I would just like Betty Debnam to know
that the contribution she is making to
educate our young people is fantastic. In
today's world with computer games, and
sometimes mindless television shows,
it is comforting to know that my child and I
can learn much in the news from the Mini
Page. We look forward to getting it on our
doorstep every week. Thanks, Mrs.
Debnam for you many years of effort to
keep our children's minds stimulated on
relevant and interesting topics.
Betty Debnam: Isn't that sweet? The tears well up in me when I hear from readers such as you.
Thank you for such a great learning tool! I usually am the first one to read The Mini Page, not only for the articles, but for the crossword and other puzzles! Having just returned from Cancun, Mexico, I wondered if you had ever completed a page for this part of the world?
Betty Debnam: No, I haven't, but I've been there and it was very interesting. We are considering taking up countries in a series when we finish our state series. I think we'll probably have gotten through all the states by the end of next year. We have done stories about Mexico, like the Cinco de Mayo holiday and the Christmas celebrations there.
Why did you discontinue "The Maze?"
Ever since our daughter was able process what she was looking at, we had ALWAYS done the maze together. She was very good at it and LOVED "Alpha Mouse."
Well she's almost 14 years old and EVERY Sunday she reminiscences about the maze. We still do the word puzzle and the hidden picture together,we compete to see who finds every object first. She has always been very good with details and I really feel it started we "The Mini Page."
Betty Debnam: Thank you very much and we will certainly put the mazes back in very soon. We like to hear from our readers. We want to know which features they like. Each year we have a Mini Page survey that we publish, and we are always interested in feedback. And readers don't have to wait for the survey to come around, they are always welcome to write us at: The Mini Page, P.O. Box 70567, Washington, DC 20024.
Farragut West, Washington, D.C.:
Are there any topics that are off the table when writing for kids? Can just about anything be discussed if done in the right way?
Betty Debnam: Yes, I do think there are certain topics that we wouldn't write about. We are very conscious of our audience and we don't want to do anything that would be considered in bad taste or not good for kids.
You might not hear a lot from us today, because we're all working, but I'm a teacher who would just like to say "thanks." The Mini Page is the greatest tool we have in the classroom to promote language and learning. I just wonder if you have any idea how many children in this world grow up with their first love of the written word being from "The Mini Page?" Thank you and please keep up the good work.
Betty Debnam: That's a very nice comment, but the support of teachers like you is one of the keys to The Mini Page's success.
We really don't know how many readers we have. We're often asked that, and we presume it's somewhere in the millions, when you combine the circulation of all the newspapers that carry us. And one of the most important roles is in Newspaper in Education programs across the country. We owe a great deal of our success to NIE coordinators at newspapers who believe that The Mini Page is of value in the classroom. Often, the circulation goes up quite measurably on the days that The Mini Page comes out.
Darn it if I just can't find the "letter A" or "the number 8" sometimes in those irritating "find the item" puzzle things. Do you do that, or does someone else? You know that hundreds of thousands of adults spend part of their Sunday mornings looking for things in those pictures, right? Thanks!
Betty Debnam: I did draw it for many years, but Wendy Jamieson, the Mini Page artist who does it now, is excellent at hiding those things. Mini Spy is perhaps our most popular character. I also kind of like Rookie Cookie and I'm very fond, of course, of Alpha Betty.
We hear from many readers who are in their sixties, seventies and eighties who enjoy reading the large type as we have, as well as the puzzle. They like to get information in a hurry, so we are pleased to have readers of all ages. As I said before, elementary education can start at any age.
P.S. I'll ask Wendy to try not to make them so hard in the future.
How did you get started in the newspaper business? Was anyone in your family in the news business?
Betty Debnam: How did you know? I'm from a newspaper family. My father was a well-know newspaper reporter in Norfolk, for the Ledger-Dispatch, and he also started a newspaper in Norfolk, the Norfolk News-Index, which didn't last very long. We moved to Raleigh, N.C., where he was on the radio for many years. He had a program called Debnam Views the News, and he also later on had a television show. So he was well-known as a newsman.
My grandfather started a newspaper in a small town, Snow Hill, N.C., in the early 1900s. When he died, my grandmother was 55 and had never edited a newspaper before, but she took over the Standard Laconic and edited it until she was 88 years old. She and my father have been my inspiration. I'm very proud that Grandmother was taken into the Journalism Hall of Fame at the University of North Carolina School of Mass Communication and Journalism last year. She was really amazing and she even continued reporting into her 90s. Her name was Bertie Speight Debnam.
Dear Ms. Debnam --
Last year, at a meeting on upcoming SOL exams for our children, the Teacher concluded her talk by holding up a copy of The Mini Page and saying "If your child reads this every week, he will pass on the Social Studies test." Thanks for a valuable and enjoyable resource.
Betty Debnam: I don't know if that is really true, but it's certainly a nice compliment.
We do have a teacher's guide that goes along with each issue of The Mini Page, although The Post doesn't run it, many papers do.
Seeing as your audience turns over every few years, do you have a timetable of how often you can repeat the same content?
Betty Debnam: No. We do reach back occasionally and we usually like for it to be at least 10 years before we repeat something. Making the holiday issues, like Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, is a challenge each year because we always want to offer new information. We always change the art and fluff the issues up if occasionally we do repeat a topic.
What can you tell us about "A Kid's Guide to the White House." What age group is it targeted for, and what is covered in this book?
Betty Debnam: It is for children, I would say, in elementary school. It's packed with pictures, it also has puzzles. It is thoroughly researched. I spent two years researching it. It was done with the cooperation of The White House Historical Association. While I think children would enjoy it, I think it would be of great interest to adults as well. We are pleased that it's on sale at The White House Visitor's Center and also in bookstores.
With the growing concern about overweight children
why are your recipes so unhealthy?
Betty Debnam: That's a good question. We try to have a mix because we are aware of the problem, not only with children, but with adults too. And we do try to have a balance of wholesome recipes as well as sweet things to eat for treats. I will talk to Rookie Cookie and see if we can't do a better job.
What do you see as the main purpose of The Mini Page?
Betty Debnam: Through The Mini Page, I hope to weave into the fabric of American education a store of basic knowledge or literacy, produced and conveniently delivered by newspapers for the enlightenment of all ages, especially the young and parents and teachers. I hope that The Mini Page has inspired newspapers to start features like KidsPost, in The Post, that I enjoy reading every day.
Well, Betty, the hour has just flown. Thanks so much for joining us today. I hope all you and your staff will continue educating all of us for many years to come. And I hope everyone will join us again in two weeks, when we have Steve Moore of "In the Bleachers" as our guest.
Betty Debnam: Thank you for having me, it's been delightful to receive such nice comments from my readers. And a special thank you to the teachers and my young readers to whom I really owe my success.