Highlights celebrates 75 years: 'Do what you do. And do it for more children'

Eiliana Wright
Columbus Dispatch

Columbus, Ohio – When Cassandra Pritikin's daughters, Kimber and Taylor, were small enough to fit onto her lap, the three of them would read 

The three would sit under a tree — one child in Cassandra's lap, of course — and comb through the magazine, reading the sections and doing the search and finds. Sometimes, the girls would choose one of Highlight's craft ideas, and there went their afternoon.

These days, Kimber and Taylor are 13 and 17. They're too big to fit in their mother's lap, but never too big for Highlights.

The CEO of Highlights for Children, Kent Johnson, has carried on the mission of his great-grandparents, who started the magazine. Highlights is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Cassandra, 47, continues to have her father renew the family's subscription to Highlights magazine. And when they can find time, the three of them still sandwich together on the couch to do the famous search and finds.

Magazine remains a favorite of parents, children

Highlights for Children, the Columbus-based magazine that began in 1946, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and after all this time has managed to remain both relevant and beloved.

Highlights for Children is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Some of its current products are seen at Highlights headquarters.

Garry Cleveland Myers and Caroline Clark Myers, late in their careers as educators at 59 and 61, wanted to create a magazine for both parents and children.

Kent Johnson, the current CEO of Highlights for Children and great-grandson of the founders, said the Myers had spent much of their careers focusing on what was then a new field of parenting and childhood development, and Highlights became a way for them to spread their knowledge.

Johnson, 52, said Highlights' first print run in 1946 made only 20,000 copies — all of which were sold and delivered door to door. Now, he says, "We don't count as much just magazines, but we count all the sort of interactions of children with Highlights-produced content around the world. Last year was about 10 million kids interacting with our content across 40 countries."

But 75 years ago, the world was much different. There were no tablets, smartphones, YouTube Channels, or even TV shows aimed at children. And yet Highlights has still remained a staple of many people's childhoods, much like Kimber and Taylor.

Johnson said the most important part of adapting has been keeping the goal of the magazine the same.

"I think the essence of Highlight's success has been a combination of holding the mission, and the values, and the insights, around children. Holding that constant, being dedicated to helping children become their best selves," he said. "But also being willing to change all the packaging, being willing to change the modes of marketing, and sales, and distribution to reach ... today's parents and today's kids."

Highlights has magazines aimed at kids from birth to 12 years old. But the company has now expanded to having an interactive website with games, articles, and even jokes. There are also Highlights apps, a podcast and a YouTube Channel.

Dwight Smith, from Springfield, Ohio, who grew up reading Highlights magazine, is now 64 — and still loves it just as much as he did all those years ago. So much so, he was recently asked to be on the board of Highlights Foundation, a separate organization designed to support storytellers.

Highlights for Children is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Smith thought back to a group of friends he had just spent time with: "We started talking about Highlights for Children, and one of the people piped up and said, 'Hidden pictures! Hidden pictures! You look at the magazine you gotta find the pictures!' And all of the sudden, four people in their 60s are having a child-like moment. You never outgrow being a child," he said.

Smith owns copies of old Highlights — one that was even personally gifted to him from Johnson from the month and year Smith was born (June 1958). He has nothing but good things to say about the way Highlights has been able to adapt.

"They've never lost the ability to connect in a deep and meaningful way with children," Smith said. "As children have remained the kind, young, loving souls that they are, the world has gotten very fast, very complex. And as the world has moved around, Highlights has managed to keep its arms around the children and say, 'We love you, let's have some fun.'"

Dealing with serious issues in a way children can understand

Pritikin, who also read Highlights as a child, said the magazine has helped her parent in many ways. "Highlights would call out special moments or a story of being kind or of social justice, but without it being a heavy subject. It would just gently lay the foundation."

She recalled a time when she was unexpectedly able to teach her daughters a lesson about bullying and how to get help, something she found hard to bring up organically.

"Highlights allowed you to be in a safe and comfortable environment to have that discussion because it kind of went along with the story you just read, so it doesn't feel forced," she said.

But there are things that Highlights has helped children deal with that are bigger than bullying: social justice, equity and inclusion.

And though Smith does not have children of his own, he is a big believer that children need a magazine like Highlights to help guide them.

"You think about the George Floyd murder, you think about social unrest, and Black Lives Matter," Smith said, "and I think that parents and people in general expect Highlights, that has such an influence on young people's lives, to speak up."

Smith is also a big supporter of Johnson's mission as CEO of Highlights. "Kent has done a really good job of saying, 'Let me share some wisdom, let me share some encouragement about topics that may not be easy to talk about, but in the best interest of our children, and of our society, I must speak up.' He talks about the importance of loving all children and creating a society that embraces differences and loves everyone," Smith said.

While the CEO does have a lot of influence, at Highlights, the children have just as much of a voice. Highlights has always given children a platform to ask important questions through the Dear Highlights column.

Dear Highlights is in every issue of the magazine. Children can write to Highlights with any question they might have, and editors will write them back. Highlights writes back to every single child who writes to them, and some letters may even be published in the magazine.

Johnson said the Dear Highlights column has always been an integral part of the magazine. "The reality is, a lot of kids are interested in their relationship with their families, trying to behave well, getting along with their siblings, getting along with their friends at school, those things that are so common across cultures and across children."

The questions can get deeper than friends at school, though. They also can be about tragedy, coronavirus, social and emotional health, mental health issues, and social justice. All things that are hard questions to ask about — and are equally as hard to answer.

According to Johnson, though, the editors at Highlights are experts in child development, and Johnson said if there's ever a question that Highlights can't answer on their own, they have multiple experts on call.

The Dear Highlights columns have been so crucial to the growth and mission of the magazine, that on Tuesday, Highlights will be publishing a book titled "Dear Highlights," that includes a collection of 300 pages of Dear Highlights letters as well as the answers that were sent back.

Johnson said the magazine wanted to do something special for the 75th anniversary, specifically geared towards grownups. This book culminates with examples of questions that children have asked Highlights for the past 75 years. Johnson called it "a cry out for a movement, to say, let's listen more carefully to our children."

Smith was able to get a copy of the book ahead of time. He said he found that a lot of the letters from long ago look very similar to the letters that children are writing today.

"So, I'm reading the book, cover to cover, right? And I would read a letter, and I would read Highlight's response, and I would tear up, and I'd go 'Oh man! That's my heart! It couldn't get any better than that!'" Smith exclaimed, "I'd turn the page, and I'd read the next letter, and the next letter, and what I found out from reading was that they give children an avenue and an opportunity to express themselves."