The Little Newspaper That Could : Weekly Reader, a Paper for Kids, Still Going Strong at 60
The Weekly Reader, the little newspaper read by generations of American schoolchildren, celebrates its 60th birthday this fall, still going strong with 9 million readers. It will mark the occasion with “60 Years of News for Kids,” a book of stories from past editions and aimed at the two-thirds of American adults who grew up reading it.
The modest periodical first hit grade-school desks in 1928. “Poor Boys Who Made Good Are Now Running for the Highest Office in the World!” read the headline over stories about Herbert Hoover and Alfred Smith.
So much for news. Inside were stories about dandelions and sunshine, a few rudimentary drawings and a poem extolling the curative powers of cod liver oil.
It was an inauspicious beginning for what has proven a classroom institution. Weekly Reader, the little newspaper read by generations of American schoolchildren, celebrates its 60th birthday this fall, still going strong with 9 million readers who pay an average of $2.25 a year to subscribe.
It will mark the occasion with “60 Years of News for Kids,” a book made up of stories from past editions and aimed at a potentially vast audience: the two-thirds of American adults who grew up with Weekly Reader. Eight editions are published for the different grade levels.
Among them is current Editor-in-Chief Terry Borton, whose own Weekly Reader years coincided with the end of World War II when subscribers were encouraged to save resources and buy war bonds. “I remember a sense of being mobilized by the school and by Weekly Reader,” Borton says.
A Tidal Wave of Nostalgia
Judging from its promotional materials, Pharos Books, the publisher of “60 Years of News for Kids,” hopes to generate a tidal wave of nostalgia: “Remember blackboards and chalk dust . . . schoolyards and recess . . . Fridays and Weekly Reader?”
In some instances the book may indeed more accurately reflect chalk dust than history; especially in its early years, Weekly Reader found much of the news unfit for its pages. It declined to cover the crash of 1929. The Great Depression was played down and the Holocaust was ignored altogether.
”. . . We promise to do our share in guarding America’s children from the hazards of fear, tensions and frustration and to contribute to emotional stability through the inspiration and reassurances that the carefully selected current content of My Weekly Reader brings to children,” founder Eleanor Johnson reassured teachers in 1942. “Ours shall be a positive philosophy of optimism.”
Accordingly, Weekly Reader made valiant attempts to put a happy face on World War II. Young readers were told that “thousands of American men are learning to cook and sew” in the Army, and that nifty wartime inventions such as “butter that won’t spoil, cake flavoring from a tablet, dishes that bounce but don’t break when dropped” would soon be available for civilian use.
Closer to the news were stories about an imaginary curtain that divided Germany into two parts; a bitter fight between Arabs and Jews over Palestine; India celebrating its independence from Great Britain.
Weekly Reader also devoted a fair amount of space to news of inventions, innovations and pop culture.
“When the Fairy Godmother turned the pumpkin into a coach, she used magic,” a 1946 feature began. “Nowadays, there is a new kind of magic. This magic is called ‘plastics.’ ”
Another magical invention announced in 1949: a camera that could make pictures in one minute.
The ‘50s brought slightly harder-edged stories about the Korean War, the Suez Canal, Sputnik. A 1954 story gave background on a war being fought in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. A 1957 piece focused on plans by six European nations to establish a common market.
The newspaper also filled its pages with breathless accounts of postwar progress, of supermarkets and superhighways, convenience foods and jet airplanes, polio vaccines and nuclear power.
Readers were reminded in 1951 that “people making the first long-distance phone calls will have to keep one eye on their watches.” For the first time, “there will be no operator to say, ‘Sorry, your time is up.’ ”
Two years later, Weekly Reader reassured kids that TV colors “are beginning to look more real. Strawberry ice cream in TV ads looks so good that you can almost taste it.”
The year 1953 also brought important news from the Soviet Union: Stalin was dead, replaced by Georgy Malenkov, of whom Weekly Reader had this to say: “His pictures show him to be a short, fat man. Malenkov spends most of his time at his office. He does not like to go to parties or talk with strangers.”
The year 1958 brought a rare product endorsement. “Hula-Hoops are made of plastic. They are a good kind of toy. Whirling hoops is good exercise for children.”
A special memorial issue followed the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Other 1960s stories touched on the summer riots of ’68, the Six Day War and the first moon landing.
Weekly Reader covered the war on poverty but shied away from the war in Vietnam. “Not everyone goes along with the President’s plans in Vietnam,” a 1968 story said. For the most part, Weekly Reader let it go at that.
“There was a lot of concern about the degree of disagreement over the war,” Borton says. “People were uncertain about how to handle that. As a result, the Vietnamese War was barely touched on by the paper.”
Drugs, Watergate, consumerism, the energy crisis, world hunger, the exodus from city to suburb, and the revolution in Iran all made headlines in the ‘70s. Feature stories told of a new hit TV show called “Sesame Street” (1970), a Soviet gymnast named Olga Korbut (1973), and a new choking rescue method invented by Dr. Henry Heimlich (1976).
Like many newspapers, Weekly Reader has refined its use of graphics in the ‘80s. This year’s editions have a decidedly more contemporary look, with color photos in all eight editions.
Weekly Reader now routinely reports on such topics as drug abuse, apartheid and the arms race, especially in editions aimed at older children.
Stories with “a strong sexual content” are avoided, Borton says. While such topics as teen pregnancy are still off-limits, however, a 1987 story for sixth-graders on the life of AIDS victim Ryan White pulled no punches. ". . . Today, Ryan weighs barely 60 pounds. . . . He holds his cold, blue hands over the red-hot coils of the kitchen stove. Ryan never seems to get warm anymore. . . .”
The newspaper covered the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, the Challenger disaster, famine in Africa and racial conflict in America. Other recent stories have focused on missing children and homelessness, the Iran-Contra affair and the Strategic Defense Initiative.
“We don’t skirt problems,” Borton says. “We try to inform them about what’s happening, but we also try to talk about what people are doing to solve problems, if it’s a problem that’s being presented.”
The paper, which has changed hands several times, was acquired in 1985 by its current owner, Field Publications, the nation’s largest marketer of children’s book clubs.
Unlike at most newspapers, the Middletown, Conn.-based editorial staff of 15 teachers and journalists and half a dozen artists spend most of their time at the office, rather than in the field. Stories are culled from other newspapers and magazines, although “we do try to develop a child’s angle,” Borton says. Occasionally, Weekly Reader generates news of its own. A 1983 survey of its readers found that 31% of fourth-grade subscribers felt pressured to smoke marijuana. The finding prompted changes in federal drug abuse prevention strategy, which has since been modified to include younger kids.
The news weekly’s current circulation of 9 million is up from 6 million in 1977. Its lowest ebb, which came during a drop in school enrollments, also coincided with the only major format change in the paper’s history.
“The paper shifted away from its formula of news and skills in an attempt to appeal more to kids. There was more children’s interest, and the news became more featury,” Borton says. “It didn’t work.”
Entertaining children was not what Eleanor Johnson had in mind when she conceived the notion of a newspaper written expressly for grade-school children. Miss Johnson, editor-in-chief for 26 years and a consultant for 17 more, died a year ago at age 94.
As a young school administrator in York, Pa., Miss Johnson had been bothered by a lack of emphasis on current events in the classroom. “I saw that children were being given a lot of myths and folklore to read but were utterly illiterate about what was happening in the world,” she once said. “To live in this world, newspaper reading is indispensable.”
The first issue appeared on Sept. 21, 1928, and cost about a penny. Other than the price, Weekly Reader hasn’t really changed all that much. It’s still guided by its original aim: “To present selected, well-written news of interest and value to children with accuracy and fairness, colorful but uncolored.”
Borton thinks it’s survived because “it’s a lot cheaper than a newspaper, and every child can have one. It’s small and easy to handle, and most importantly of all, it’s written for kids.
“The New York Times assumes you understand a great deal about the world. We assume kids in sixth grade understand what kids in sixth grade understand.”