Trudy Farrand cherishes the great debates. You know that because her eyes sparkle as she explains how they erupt each month, when her staff argues about what will best fill the pages of Ranger Rick magazine.
"We have some pretty good battles," Farrand says. "It's not a good place to be thin-skinned. We'll go back and forth for hours, and finally think we have it all settled. Then someone will suddenly yell, 'Wait, we don't have any amphibians in this issue, and I've got this absolutely great frog story.' And we'll have to keep going."
Joy lights Farrand's 67-year-old face. All of those debates, she contends, demonstrate enthusiasm for Ranger Rick's mission: to snap kids out of video hypnosis by enticing them to read about the world and its creatures. If the stories excite, if the photographs startle, Farrand believes the magazine's 750,000 subscribers will learn, and it will even seem fun. That's the secret -- and the challenge.
Ranger Rick is produced in Vienna by the National Wildlife Federation for children ages 6 through 12. (The magazine got its title from a children's book featuring a nature-loving raccoon of that name.) Farrand is the only editor the monthly magazine -- which began 21 years ago with a mere 40,000 readers -- has ever had. At the end of the summer she will retire.
"I was so sure when we started that in five or six years we would be completely out of ideas," Farrand says. "But, even now, we'll decide to do a story on some common creature, and I'll discover that we've never done anything on it. There's just so much out there to use."
And there are tricks to using it well. Farrand figures Ranger Rick's audience has an attention span "of about 30 seconds," and leisurely reading often ranks low among a child's priorities. Thus there are a few key commandments in children's magazine publishing: Kids Love Surprise. Kids Love Snakes. And Thou Shall Not Print Plant Photos.
Those secrets shared, Farrand offers another: Her trade is flourishing. Perhaps spurred by parents afraid of raising children whose favorite hobby is screaming "I Want My MTV," the market for children's magazines has never been stronger. According to the American Library Association, nearly 100 magazines are now published exclusively for children.
"We need to reach the reluctant reader," Farrand says, "and for us to do that we need to convince them it's fun to read, to use the things they respond to, and at the same time include information that will teach them to care about their environment."
Ranger Rick staffers cover various beats: mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and people and places making nature news. Each month, the staff chooses about three dozen photographs selected from an assortment that often exceeds 3,000 -- "We get quite a bit of competition among photographers," Farrand says. Scientific experts are interviewed, environmental problems researched, every fact double-checked. Then comes the hard part: translating stories into what she calls "Ranger Rickese."
"We've had a lot of people who just couldn't do it," Farrand says. "It can be much more difficult than writing for adults. You have to make the text simple enough to read, but not so simple that it sounds babyish. You never talk down to them. You have to be very careful. We spend an incredible amount of time on the texts." Stories rarely contain more than 900 words; each is distributed to the whole 12-person editorial staff before publication.
Every issue of the magazine, typically 32 pages, contains articles about unique and bizarre animals, scientific phenomena, nature's troubles and the magazine's anchor: a brief fictional tale called "The Adventures of Ranger Rick." Farrand does not shape content by whim; in 1984, a three-year study of Ranger Rick's readership was completed to determine what kids and their parents wanted from the magazine. Subscribers' preferences were determined by mail surveys, phone interviews with parents and grammar school sampling.
"It was about as sophisticated a research project as you can find," Farrand says. And she hopes it helps defeat a popular perception nagging even the best children's magazines: that the staff just slaps stuff down on a page. A few cute photos. Make them huge. A few cute stories. Give them that and-the-poppa-bear-told-the-baby-bear touch. And poof: an issue.
"My blood pressure rises when I hear someone say, 'It's just a children's magazine,' " Farrand says. "If we're going to teach -- and we believe we do -- we had better make sure we do it right. We are always trying to make sure we use stories and photographs that really make kids care about the environment, and grow up to be caring adults."
More than 500 letters pour into Ranger Rick's office each week, and Farrand says reading the comically sincere seals of approval children bestow on the magazine will be chief among the things she misses when she departs in September.
"It's been such a feeling of accomplishment every time an issue comes out," Farrand says. "We know we're really trying to do something good -- to educate young readers to care about their environment. We've done terrible damage to this world, and the problems are only getting more complicated. So we do what we can with Ranger Rick. Every little bit counts."