An unwavering focus on literacy has kept Highlights for Children relevant for more than 70 years, even in the online era.

Kent Johnson isn’t interested in being cutting edge as he moves Highlights magazine into the digital age. And he certainly has no plans to put the beloved children’s publication online. But the CEO of Columbus-based Highlights for Children Inc. isn’t shying away from all digital offerings for the magazine, which turned 73 this year.  It’s just a matter of finding the right fit.

“We want to find ways to create experiences for kids online, not re-create the magazine,” says Johnson, who has led the publishing company since 2005. “Reading a magazine on a tablet, we don’t think that’s engaging.”

But an app where kids can find toothbrushes, pencils, bananas and books hidden in a drawing of pigs playing with Legos—an online version of the magazine’s popular Hidden Pictures feature—is an online experience worth a kid’s time, Johnson says. “The interesting thing is, we’re finding that a lot of grown-ups are loving it, too,” says Kerstin Reinhart, director of digital business for the company.

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That shouldn’t be surprising, since many parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents have their own fond memories of the magazine. Highlights for Children, as it was called for decades, debuted in 1946 when Cleveland couple Garry and Caroline Myers leveraged their years of experience in child development to launch the publication. Garry, a child psychologist, and Caroline, a teacher, were pioneers in the 1920s parent education movement that promoted an understanding of child development rather than rote learning and rigid discipline.

Both taught at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and eventually began working with children’s periodicals as advisers and editors, promoting their belief that children can learn through play and positive suggestions. After raising their own children and amassing years of knowledge and experience, they struck out on their own and began publishing Highlights for Children.

Sold initially through door-to-door subscriptions, the magazine included many of today’s mainstays: Hidden Pictures, poems, stories, history, craft projects, matching games, and children’s letters and drawings. The couple set up editorial offices in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, near Caroline’s childhood home, and established their business office in Columbus, where they’d found a printer.

“My great-grandparents came to the magazine business to create a product for kids that had their philosophical ideas on how to spur children’s positive development,” Johnson explains. “Highlights brings a thoughtfulness, a positivity, an optimism, and it comes to children with a respect for who they are.” 

Through the Years

Four years after Highlights debuted, it nearly tanked as expenses grew. Garry Myers Jr., the founders’ son, quit his job as an aeronautical engineer and revived the business side of the operation. Under his watch, the magazine was sent to doctors’ and dentists’ offices as well as to schools, and by 1960 it had half a million subscribers. At its peak in the 1980s, circulation was 3 million before settling around 2 million today.

To celebrate its 70th anniversary, a 90-minute documentary about the magazine, “44 Pages,” premiered at U.S. film festivals in 2016 and now can be seen on Netflix.

Over the years, the cover of the magazine has become brighter and bolder, and the content has evolved. Goofus and Gallant, characters who depict negative and positive behavior in monthly Highlights illustrations, have morphed from elves to boys, while “The Bear Family” feature has been discontinued to make room for other content. One newer feature is “Ask Arizona,” which poses a common problem and uses a story to illustrate how it can be solved.

“We’ve stayed relevant because we understand that essentially, kids are still the same,” says Christine Cully, editor-in-chief. “Childhood is still about figuring out who you are and navigating your relationships, and finding out what your strengths and weaknesses are.”

While the company has full-time editors and art directors, all of its writers and illustrators are freelancers, Cully says. The business also operates book publishing arms as well as educational group Zaner Bloser Inc.

Johnson, a physicist, took over the top job in 2005 after just six months with the company, transitioning into the CEO spot after the sudden death of Garry Myers III, grandson of the founders. “I think I shocked everyone by saying that maybe I could do this,” says Johnson, a great-grandson of the founders. “I was transitioning to more of a businessman in my career, and I just realized this would be interesting. But this has always been a family business, and I took it day by day.”

Under Johnson’s leadership, the company has grown its print, digital and specialty offerings. It added a magazine for preschoolers, High Five, one for babies, Hello, and a bilingual magazine, High Five Bilingüe, in Spanish and English. “Our editors thought we could make a great magazine for preschoolers, which was a real gamble,” Johnson says. “But the response was good and then we launched the baby magazine, which is sort of a crazy thing to do because no one thinks their baby needs a magazine. But we decided we should serve kids in the first year of their life and be a supporter for parents in the early pre-literacy years.”

The company also offers subscription book clubs, where children receive books centered around a specific subject every three weeks; apps featuring monsters, shapes and puzzles; and an online site that includes games, jokes, podcasts and other activities.

Internationally, the company has partnered with a company in South Korea to help children learn English online with Highlights content, an effort that’s expanding worldwide. “We’re trying to reach as many kids as possible, and digital allows us to extend our reach,” Reinhart says. “We want to make sure we’re playing anyplace that kids are playing.”

In the future, offerings might include an animated series on television or YouTube, or perhaps a series that includes Goofus and Gallant or “Ask Arizona,” she says.

Child Focused

Despite its ongoing evolution, one thing about Highlights hasn’t changed: its magazines and website remain ad-free. “We only work for one audience: our subscribers,” Johnson says. “So editors aren’t listening to what advertisers want.”

To keep their finger on the pulse of their readers, Highlights editors answer every letter and email they receive from kids—thousands a year, Cully says. “The founders used to answer them all themselves,” she says. “We don’t take it lightly, because they’re writing about important things: a concern or a joy or a hope. Kids don’t expect to get an answer, but I think the parents are more surprised that we answer than the kids.”

That concern for young people extends to the CEO’s office. Johnson feels so strongly about the welfare of children that he put the company in an uncharacteristically political spotlight this summer by publicly denouncing the Trump administration’s practice of separating immigrant children from their families at the U.S. border. He called on readers to join him in his stance. “We want kids to understand the importance of having moral courage,” he wrote in a statement posted on social media. “Let our children draw strength and inspiration from our collective display of moral courage.”

Kris Hickey, youth services manager at the Whetstone branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, says quality children’s magazines are valuable for literacy. “They’re especially good for kids who might be reluctant readers, because a magazine has content in smaller chunks and that’s less intimidating than a chapter book, where there’s so many words on a page,” she says.

Highlights is one of many magazines the library offers and is among the best, she says. “They get kids,” says Hickey, a librarian for 12 years. “They understand what’s interesting to children. Plus there’s a trust factor: Parents remember reading it as children, and they want their children to have the same experience.”

Johnson says the company is devoted to continuing its print publications, despite moves by some magazines to offer online-only content. “I think we’ll use the last piece of paper that our species produces,” he says. “We think it helps kids along the path to be their best selves. Childhood is a short, sweet season, and we think you can’t waste a minute. So that’s our secret sauce: making the best content we can for kids.”