One of the nicest gifts my oldest child has bestowed on his younger sister was his subscription to Sesame Street, when he outgrew it, and later, Electric Company. He moved on to WOW, then Odyssey and 3-2-1 Contact; his sister has since graduated to Peanut Butter and Cricket, having passed her Sesame subscription down to the baby.
My kids get just a few of the more than two dozen magazines written for children today. Experts bemoan the modern child's lack of interest in reading, yet more good children's magazines are being published now than ever before.
More than 9 million kids subscribe to more than two dozen magazines of general interest. This does not include special-interest, religious, regional or Canadian magazines. An estimated 30 million children read magazines in libraries, schools and homes.
Most of these publications are a far cry from the old Weekly Reader administered in school like a dose of medicine.
Television has cast its long shadow on a host of these magazines. It spawned such excellence as Sesame Street and Electric Company, which use top-quality design, flamboyant color and clever games to reinforce learning skills taught in the mythical worlds of Ernie and Bert and Spiderman.
It set the stage for the new Muppet magazine, a high-gloss production with Kermit as frog-in-chief of 56 pages of TV gags.
Television's vivid imagery and punchy language show up in such snazzy productions as Dynamite, Bananas, Peanut Butter and Hot Dog. With their grabby covers, media-star fascination, jokes and games, these jazzy magazines attract kids' attention.
One of the most stunning in this line is WOW, designed by Philip Johnson, formerly head of Creative Playthings. WOW is a zany, multi-colored production chockablock with punch-out, pull-out, snap-out space ships, bears, puppets and buildings. It virtually self-destructs minutes after being received.
If TV has turned the modern child into consumer, Penny Power has sprung up to teach him to evaluate his purchases. This is Consumer Union's bright, witty magazine that uses a panel of children around the country to test everything from Pac-Man to book bags to french fries and teach readers how to evaluate purchases.
There are an equal number of magazines as far removed from pop culture as David Copperfield is from E.T. One that bridges the two worlds is Highwire for the older teen-ager. Highwire is written almost entirely by high-school and college students. It combines a bright format with excellent writing of serious and amusing pieces. Recent issues have covered sex education, the life of a young Cambodian refugee and the student as consumer, as well as witty takeoffs on current films and Boy Scout mottoes.
Cricket is a serious, beautifully crafted magazine. Such superb writers and artists as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tomie De Paola and Edward Gorey contribute fiction and drawings to Cricket. This magazine treats children with the highest respect, refusing to talk down to them in any way. Parents who like to read to their children will find excellent material in Cricket.
Another in this line is Cobblestone, the only history magazine for kids. Here are finely crafted short essays, fiction, puzzles, crafts and cartoons presenting topics such as the U.S. Constitution, the settling of the frontier and early American education.
If there's a budding artist or writer in the family, Stone Soup is valuable. It is written entirely by children, who contribute all its stories, remarkably good poems, drawings and even book reviews.
Odyssey is one of several fine science and nature magazines for children. It feeds the contemporary child's fascination with outer space, using colorful illustrations and clearly written articles on meteors, eclipses, sunspots, black holes and other mysteries for kids who want to know the story behind Star War fantasies.
Others in this line are Scienceland and Your Big Backyard, for preschoolers, and Ranger Rick, World and 3-2-1 Contact for the progressively older child. All are loaded with color photography and fascinating excursions into all aspects of the natural world.
Kids can learn about black history and culture in Ebony Jr!, which also emphasizes reading skills.
To be sure, not all current children's magazines are slick and sophisticated. Highlights for Children, a staple in doctors' and dentists' offices, is still going strong in just the same ways it always did. Its stories remain conservative in tone, even moralistic; it still features Hidden Pictures and Goofus and Gallant.
Turtle, Humpty Dumpty and Jack and Jill have not succumbed to trendy themes and graphics either, but rather present health and nutrition facts to young children in the form of stories, puzzles and games in mostly black and white on plain newsprint.
Children's Playmate, Child Life, Children's Digest, Health Explorer and Jr. Medical Detective all are published by the same company for older elementary levels. All follow similar health themes and layout.
A striking number of kids' magazines actively involve their readers by soliciting and publishing letters, drawings, ideas, poems, comments and evaluations from their young subscribers. Many sponsor contests and drawings, with some awarding prizes such as T-shirts, Mickey Mouse ears and even portable radios.
And then there are the advice columns, a trendy innovation that's also hit the children's pages. Whether serious, like psychiatrist Dr. Harvey Greenberg answering questions in Dynamite about being teased or consoling a child whose mother is dying, or silly, like Uncle Wilbur in Jack and Jill, even preschool magazines serve up Dear Someone columns. Of course, Miss Piggy has her own conceited column in Muppet magazine.
Most children's magazines accept little or no advertising. Of the few that do, Highwire refuses ads for liquor, cigarettes and films considered by the staff to be in bad taste. Muppet magazine is saturated with the same toy ads which bombard kids on Saturday morning television.
Subscriptions to kids' magazines are inexpensive, considering the satisfaction of seeing one's children spend hours each month poring through their pages rather than twirling the TV dial. Many a holiday toy costing three times as much has been abandoned or broken before February.
And then there's the thrill a child gets when something with his name on it comes in the mail. A magazine becomes a very personal possession, a paper playmate that stimulates imaginative thinking.