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Children's Magazines Grow Up

Cartoons give way to junior versions of adult products

BARBIE has one of her own. So do Donald and Mickey, as well as the Muppets and the whole gang from Sesame Street. Children's magazines have come a long way since the days of those dated, dog-eared periodicals that used to linger in dentists' offices. Today, they're a blossoming slice of the magazine market, and the range of subject material is broad, going far beyond just ``fanzines'' of licensed cartoon characters, television shows, and products. In fact, there are nearly as many magazines as there are childrens' interests.

Is the child in your life interested in science? ``3-2-1 Contact'' might strike a chord. A budding naturalist? Try ``Ranger Rick'' or ``National Geographic World.'' Wild about baseball, skateboarding, soccer? You can't miss with ``Sports Illustrated for Kids.''

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And with the long, lazy days of summer stretching ahead, what better way to supplement a holiday reading list or capture the attention of a reluctant reader? Magazines are easy to pick up and put down, highly portable (good for plane travel and trips to the beach), and reasonably priced. For about the same cost as a single hardcover book, one may purchase a year's subscription to a child's magazine.

``I'd say anything that gets a kid to read and turn off the television is a good addition to a home,'' says Patricia Berry, a senior editor at ``Sports Illustrated for Kids.''

Kate Waters, editor of Scholastic Professional Books in New York, and a writer and former children's librarian at the Boston Public Library, concurs. ``Children adopt reading habits by modeling, by watching their parents,'' she says. ``The younger a child can have something that comes to the home in his name, that looks like what their mom and dad has, the younger they'll sit down and mimic that behavior and adopt it. So it's vital.''

Ms. Waters has especially high praise for interactive magazines - those which accept submissions from children, as well as involve them in activities like puzzles and games. She calls them ``vital for creativity. If a child can submit art or a poem or something, it makes their work, their learning work - reading, writing, calculating, listening, and all the rest of it - worth something. It gives it a wider relevance than just school tests.''

Commenting on the growing number of magazines that publish student writing, Christine Lord, an editor at ``Merlyn's Pen'' in Rhode Island, suggests that ``part of the reason for this, is that kids are just naturally interested in what other kids are writing.''

Ms. Lord feels this particular type of magazine is especially important for adolescents, who can be ``a tough audience to reach,'' since working toward the goal of being published can help ``give them a certain validity.''

For reluctant readers, she notes, magazines are ``a natural tool. [Books and] textbooks don't always do the trick, especially for at-risk kids, and getting them to sit with a magazine is a step in the right direction.''

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For those looking to zero in on a magazine for the child in their life, Waters offers these tips:

Start with a trip to your local public library. Take a look at what's available there, and ask the children's librarian for recommendations.

Be sure that the magazine is subscribed to in the child's name. ``It's very important that it comes to the child, that it's their mail,'' says Waters.

Consider choosing a magazine that doesn't necessarily only reflect your child's interest. ``One of the wonderful things about Time and Newsweek for all of us,'' Waters notes, ``is that we find ourselves reading things we never thought we'd be interested in. You use them as expansion tools.''

Save the magazines. The material in children's magazines is rarely time-sensitive. Children can enjoy re-reading issues, and may be able to refer to them in the future for school projects.

Finally, keep in mind that there is generally an eight-week start-up period for magazine subscriptions. If this is to be a birthday or holiday gift, order well in advance.

Perspective buyers many also want to take into consideration the balance of ads in the magazine, Waters says. Although magazines aimed at preschoolers don't carry ads, some of the ones for older children do. Parents may want to weigh the cost of a handful of sneaker and candy ads against the benefits advertising brings to a magazine.

``I think you can't help but respect the fact that advertising allows you as an editor to do more,'' says Ms. Berry. At Sports Illustrated for Kids, for example, good advertising support means that ``we're able to do what we can graphically and artistically, and get the best writers.''

In the end, a little parental research is well worth the effort, if the result is a magazine that sparks a child's interest. Besides, adds Berry, it's important to ``know what you're buying - there's a lot of junk out there.''

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