Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Latest Issues from Cricket

I’d like to thank Jenna Bartolomei for allowing me to take a look at the latest issues published by the Cricket Magazine Group. Cricket has been a staple of children’s magazines-and hence children’s literature-for thirty-five years. The Cricket family of magazines is actually published by the Carus Publishing Company, headquartered southwest of Chicago. This was founded by Marianne Carus in 1973, and she still serves as editor-in-chief for all the company’s publications, as far as I am aware. Her well-publicized desire at the time of Cricket’s launch was to create The New Yorker for children; while I think this has been largely accomplished just by Cricket itself, Carus’s desire to branch out into different age groups and subjects is admirable. The breadth of their offerings reaches from infants to late adolescents.

The tent pole publication is, of course, Cricket, but the group has added various sister publications throughout the years. Today they publish magazines with three emphases divided up for five age groups, as follows:

The best-known body of publications is the “literature and imagination” category. This features Babybug for children under 3, Ladybug for children ages 3-6, Spider for 6-9, Cricket for 9-14, and finally Cicada for those above that age. This is the only group of magazines that begins so young or lasts until so old, making Babybug and Cicada the edge’s of Cricket’s spectrum.

In the “ideas and science” category there is Click for ages 3-6, Ask for 6-9 year-olds, and two for 9-14 year-olds: Odyssey and Muse.

The “history and culture” category does not begin until the 6-9 age group, with Appleseeds. This is followed by a bevy of titles for the 9-14 year-olds: Dig, Faces, Calliope, and Cobblestone.

A subscription insert in my copy of Ladybug describes a few of these titles:

Ask magazine is perfect for curious kids, exploring questions like: How did dogs become domesticated? How are robots designed? Why do we sleep? Engaging articles and outstanding photography will amaze young readers.”

Dig is about the thrill of discovery! And the latest archeological finds from around the world.”

Muse magazine is for the kid who wants to know everything-the latest science news, history, art, and more.”

Suffice it to say that there is something from the Cricket group for essentially any reader. Ironically, however, a couple weeks ago I wrote about how kids’ magazines are struggling to find and keep readers. This phenomenon is true across age groups and interests: according to the newest issue of American Journalism Review, U.S. newspapers have shed more than 1,000 jobs this year. In the past few weeks we’ve seen venerable periodicals from The New York Times to Rolling Stone shrink their size to cut costs. And on and on. Pick up any coy of AJR or Columbia Journalism Review and you see the same thing again and again: that it’s the middle of the end for print journalism. If parents are cutting their own consumption of printed media in favor of online material, then why should they not do the same for their children?

Well, I’ve got about four good reasons on my desk here. Not to be a Luddite about children’s material on the Internet--hopefully yesterday’s post showed that I’m quite in favor of online content and new media--but I think that parents who resort to it exclusively are missing out. Once again, it’s the principle of a balanced diet, which applies equally to media consumption as to nutrition.

Having said that, I admit that for the past year I’ve been meaning to subscribe to Ladybug but have never felt fiscally free to do so. Having held one in my hand again, after quite a respite, and especially seeing Loretta’s positive reaction to it, makes me reconsider. At any rate, here is a sampling of what I found in the “bug” (“literature and imagination”) series, from Babybug through Cricket:


This is one I had not seen before, and I’ve been curious for months what would be in a magazine for toddlers. I assumed it would be like a paperback board book, which it turns out is not too far off the mark. The dimensions are small, roughly six or seven nearly square inches, and though made of paper, not boards, the individual pages are sturdy, able to withstand a baby’s handling. What I most appreciated was a paper cover, or wrapper, glued to the outside of the magazine proper that discussed the magazine’s content, the research that went into it, and various ways to build upon it in interacting with your child. Such resources, like I was discussing yesterday with PBS KIDS Island, are a wonderful way to help parents maximize the benefit from their children’s media, whether printed or visual.

The magazine’s only eleven pages, counting both covers, and the September issue has a short story by Clara Vulliamy about a toddler picking up her mess, “Humpty Dumpty” illustrated by Carolyn Croll, a narrative presenting a hidden object activity by Nancy Edwards (the cover material encourages parents to do this on your own with your child), and a handful of poems and other items. The magazine is succinct, but it’s actually amazing they included as much material as they did, without feeling cramped. Subscribing to Babybug is like checking out a new boardbook from the library every month but not having to worry about your child drooling all over it.


This is just the cream of the crop for me, since my daughter falls in this age group and it’s the one I tend to have the most fun writing for, both for television and print. September ’08 has two stories and an activity devoted to camping, several poems, detailed pictures—by Ron Lipking—with brief captions to encourage youngster’s visual engagement, a few stories, and the music and words to “This Old Man.” I quite liked “A Meal Fit for a King” by Marcie Aboff and illustrated by Liza Woodruff, about a young chimpanzee’s attempt to cook a dessert for the Great King Ape. Poems include new works and a traditional Navajo piece translated by Hilda Wetherill, and there’s a permanent comic stript entitled “Mop and Family” by Alex de Wolf and Martine Schaap.


This was perhaps my favorite issue of the bunch, a surprise because I had previously heard the least about it. Spider is for the age where children are old enough to be reading on their own, but young enough to still be innocent and guileless, if I dare say that—at least it is still children’s, not young adults’, literature. My favorite part of this magazine was the short special section on pizza—what a great topic—which essentially consisted of an ode, “To a Pizza,” by Jennifer Judd, and a nonfiction history of pizza’s, “Pizza’s Past,” by Devorah Gurwitz. Nonfiction is particularly difficult to make relevant, revelatory, and interesting for young readers, and this is as fine an example as I’ve read recently. I certainly learned a great deal, from why a plain slice is called a Margherita to the fact that pizzas didn’t emigrate to America until after World War II. The other poems and stories were also top-knotch, but I spent as much time reading the letters to the editor and looking at readers’ artwork as looking at the work by grown-ups. I did particularly like the poem “The Hens Have Gone to Bed” by Laurie O. Curtis for the fact that, though it was in a wonderfully quiet verse, it did not rhyme or feel compelled to exhilarate with every stanza. This, more than any other piece in any magazine, made me feel like I was reading The New Yorker (which I do read cover to cover every week).


Cricket, then, is making that transition into young adulthood. The stories and nonfiction essays are longer--including a fantasy serial by Frederic S. Durbin (fitting since Lloyd Alexander was one of the magazine's founders)--and deal with more mature issues like cruelty to animals in Betsy Hearne’s “Cargo” and deafness in Claire H. Blatchford’s autobiographical “Passing on the Torch"; these were both part of a special section on dogs, another great topic to explore in unusual ways like these. Donna Gamache’s “The Window Washer” addresses gossip through a student learning about her teacher’s romantic life. Anna Levine’s nonfiction history “Live Wires” discusses Morse code and telegraphs (try explaining that to a five-year-old) by comparing them to instant messaging. My favorite piece was a story by Kathryn Lay called “The Day Grandpa’s Teeth Flew” that depicts the troubled relationship between a granddaughter and grandfather, plus a tornado. I admit it took me a page to get into it, but the scene Lay paints in the storm cellar is effective and touching.


There is obviously a lot to recommend there. I’d like to put it in the context of yesterday’s post about the virtues of exploring reading in an online world. To put it succinctly, I’m a strong advocate of both. Electronic resources, be it an independent website or one associated with a television program, magazine, author, or station (like PBS KIDS Island), are wonderful for their immediacy, their instant accessibility, and their interactivity; it’s also not bad touch that they teach youngsters computer skills as well.

The allure of the magazine is somewhat different. There is interactivity in a pre-worldwide web sort of way, (though kids write in via email rather than letters), including some ways that you can’t really get online like crossword puzzles and word searches that are easier with a pencil than a mouse. Cricket has taken this one step further by turning many of their back covers into fold-out arts-and-crafts activities: Ladybug features a cut-out tent and campsite with two paper dolls, while Spider has a “constellation cone,” a cut-out poke-through piece of astronomical crafts that, when placed over a flashlight, allow you to recreate the night sky on your own ceiling.

On top of such features, however, the real allure of printed magazines is their very printed nature itself. They are tactile, physical objects that a child can own and manipulate. Each afternoon after I retrieve Loretta from Pre-K part of our daily routine is to stop in our lobby and get the mail. We used to sing the Blue’s Clues mail-time song, though that’s largely faded, but Loretta still without fail asks “Is there anything for me?” as I open the box. She is sorely disappointed when there’s not, but when there is--generally either a letter from her Aunt Kristine in Idaho or the Friend magazine from the LDS Church--she is thoroughly elated; she rushes up the stairs and immediately opens up her new treasure. So the point is she loves getting mail and she loves having a magazine that belongs to her alone-and is actually interesting, without all that boring stuff (i.e. bills) that mom and dad normally get. There is a definite feeling of validation that comes from receiving and owning a magazine at that age, and it will spark a love of reading that will last throughout life. Though I’m a media enthusiast and avid viewer of shows and films, in the end there is no substitute for having books and magazines in your home. I think it’s time I subscribe to Ladybug after all.

1 comment:

Christy Lenzi said...

I loved getting Cricket in my mailbox when I was a kid. Nowadays I open my contributor copies with that same sense of anticipation. The Cricket Group consistently produces fun, lovely magazines--Thank you for posting this! .