With three-quarters of a century under its belt, Highlights for Children, the brightly colored, instantly recognizable magazine delivered to mailboxes across the country, served as a first friend for generations of young readers. Marking the magazine’s 75th anniversary is the release this summer of Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids, which chronicles the storied history of children’s connections with Highlights through the years.
As the Highlights family of businesses positions itself for further growth, we spoke with Mary-Alice Moore, executive v-p, business strategy and product development, to discuss the evolution of the brand, its penetration into the retail market, and the forthcoming title that commemorates this milestone.
Knowing Their Audience
Reaching two million subscribers per month via its flagship publications—Highlights for ages 6–12, High Five for ages 2–6, and Hello for ages up to two, as well as a bilingual version of High Five—the company started Boyds Mills Press in 1990 to publish trade books for children, broadening its reach with other product categories and formats over the years. “The universal nature of retail shopping means that more families can find Highlights, whether or not they are a magazine subscriber,” Moore said.
Since Highlights Press’s inception, the book publishing side of the business has grown thirtyfold—a phenomenon that Moore attributes to a carefully rolled-out distribution strategy. “From the beginning, we had a vision for a robust, multicategory, multiformat publishing portfolio, but we started where consumers understood the brand best: Hidden Pictures [activity books], puzzles, and jokes,” she said, noting the company’s ability to understand what kids enjoy, find funny, and are generally interested in. This insight comes straight from the readers themselves, tens of thousands who send in jokes, puzzles and drawings every year and also offer unsolicited feedback on what they like—and don’t like. “It’s an invaluable editorial resource, one that keeps us both current and honest about childhood today,” she added.
Highlights Press relies upon this input to help craft its lines, particularly when it comes to puzzle products. While the company generally tests out puzzle concepts to determine what strategies kids use at different ages, this approach played a specific role in the launch of Highlights Learning, the publisher’s second book imprint, in 2017. “We realized that the skills kids acquire by doing puzzles—attention to detail, flexible thinking, and willingness to use more than one strategy to solve a problem—are essential qualities for school success,” Moore noted. By working with educators to ensure that these books align with school standards, the company was able to seamlessly introduce its puzzle concepts.
Highlights’s experience in this space proved especially effective during last spring’s debut of Puzzle Readers, a line that had been two years in the making. “We wanted to ensure that we mapped the developmental progression of learning to read with the developmental progression of puzzling,” Moore said. Since the Puzzle Readers launch last May, approximately 100,000 copies have been sold.
Following on its heels were the fall 2020 releases The 2021 Almanac of Fun and The Highlights Book of Things to Do, both of which have helped to further develop the Highlights brand. Aimed at ages 6–9, the almanac contains a collection of events, holidays, trivia and projects, and has sold nearly 25,000 copies to date. The latter title, for ages seven and up, is a hardcover keepsake containing projects, activities, crafts, recipes, and experiments. Of note is the last chapter, entitled “Do Great Things,” which seeks to inspire kids to engage with others in their community. Roughly 40,000 copies have shipped since publication.
To add to the Highlights Press library is this August’s release of Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids, a book that is near and dear to editor-in-chief Christine French Cully. In fall 2019, she and her team paid several visits to Ohio State University’s Thompson Library, the home of nearly 1000 of kids’ letters, poems, and drawings that had been shipped from the Highlights office in Honesdale, Pa., and preserved for the last several decades. Upon reviewing these files, the team discovered that kids’ concerns remained constant over the years: friendship and family struggles, achieving their hopes and dreams, and how to play a part in solving societal problems. “Implicit in every letter sent over the decades is the overarching question, ‘do you care about me?,’ ” Cully noted. Seeking to answer this resounding query, the editors felt they had an important need to fulfill.
Faced with the task of determining which letters to include, Cully and her editors decided on the following criteria: letters from kids ages 7–13; samples from each decade; and a range of topics, including divorce, addiction, depression, racism, and violence in the home. As the editors pored over the possible entries, they realized that they could not shy away from addressing the pandemic. “For the first time in our long letter-writing history, we were confronting—in the same moment of time—many of the same emotions our readers were sharing with us, and we knew we had to add another chapter to document this extraordinary event as seen through the lens of children,” Cully explained.
To emphasize the publication of this commemorative book, Highlights Press is calling upon retailers to designate August 9–16 as Highlights Week in their stores. The company is offering in-store event kits and sponsoring a display contest to support its participating retail partners. And with plans to expand the company into other product categories such as stationery, games, puzzles, toys, and apparel, the Highlights team will continue to keep its focus front and center: “we love to challenge and motivate kids, to make them think and to make them laugh,” Cully said.