Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Look at Disney's Magazines

I've reviewed a few apps in recent months and as I've been looking at ebooks and writing interactive samples myself my attention's gone back a great deal to traditional print material. It generally seems that as digital material proliferates that print will play an increasingly diminished role in the media pie--for children and adults--but I think that it's actually because of the multitude of electronic options that paper-based media will come to hold increased importance for readers. We're still an app-free household, for better or worse, but it's great to see Loretta's eyes light up whenever a National Geographic Kids magazine arrives or we take little Izzy into the library.

With that in mind I had a great time going through some of the latest issues of Disney's print magazines (or we all did, actually). The Disney magazine family includes Disney Princess, Disney/Pixar Cars, Disney Fairies, Phineas and Ferb, and Disney Junior Magazine. They're all based on pre-existing properties, obviously, a target the respective demographics of each one. While girls tend to like fairies & princesses and boys like cars (it was the only magazine Loretta had no interest in), both the Phineas and Ferb and Disney Junior magazines cater well to both genders, just like their programs on TV; for the latter magazine that's Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Little Einsteins, Handy Manny, Secret Agent Oso, and Jungle Junction, all of which play well to both boys and girls.

All the magazines have a good variety of material. No prose fiction, but comics, games, and activities, in different proportions, and they each have a foldout poster at the center, a really great example of something an app will never do. Disney Junior leans almost entirely toward interactive material; there are pages about matching, colors, shapes, counting, etc., as well as a board game or two. The issue I read was all about health and nutrition, so it included recipes as well. Cars and especially Phineas both have a lot of show trivia (Cars, I guess, is as much about the actual cars as Cars, I or II), and Phineas, which had the most regular typed material of all the magazines, also had "extra-curricular" material like facts about actual platypuses. Trivia is the kind of stuff die-hard fans--the kids who would subscribe to something like this--would want, and I was actually a little shocked I didn't know it all (I mean, I thought I knew every Doofenshmirtz jingle!). This issue also had a cut-out paper theater, another low-tech toy possible in a print medium that reminded me of the magazines of my childhood--and which kids can still enjoy today.

Loretta, who turned eight last month, was very into the Fairies magazine, which was centered all around the recent "Pixie Hollow Games" television special, although it had less comics than we both expected. She read all the comics it had, though, and gave a thorough look through to everything else. Just like with the retail merchandise the Princess magazine skews a little younger than the Fairies, and even though much of it was over her head my two-year-old Isabelle actually really got into this one. This magazine was animal-themed, and Izzy loved having us read the comic about when Ariel (as a human) got a horse, or when Snow White lost hers. There were puppies, fish, and other animals, and Izzy loved looking at them all--she stared at the poster of Snow White and her "woodland friends" forever, and she even did one of the cut-out activities with us.

The magazine editors aren't ignorant they're pushing a print product in a digital world. There are tie-ins to past episodes, promotions for upcoming events like Peter Pan's appearance on Jake and the Never Land Pirates, and the extension of storyworlds in lots of directions, like human Ariel getting a horse or Meap returning to visit Phineas and Ferb. What's missing are stories that originate in print and move online for exclusive gaming through a URL or QR code or something; but while maybe that's the future of integrating print and digital content, as a parent I'm more pleased to see my daughters interacting with a strictly single medium product. I want them to know what it's like to flip, rather than scroll, through a magazine, to browse something, dog-ear a page, cut things out, and store it on a shelf rather than a hard drive. These aren't just quaint practices, I don't think, but are integral to how we read and how the mind processes information. They're digital natives and I'm not worried about them not adjusting to contemporary technology, but I certainly don't think it will make them Luddites to also be familiar with--and love--print, and how things like tables of contents work. Disney may get a lot of criticism for charging subscriptions to what many may deem multi-page advertisements for its TV shows, but it's pushing to grow its magazine division at a time when dozens of children's magazines are dying, it's incorporating curriculum into its titles for younger children, its giving them a periodic surprise in their mailbox that's good for patience and maturation, and it's giving kids something tactile to read and store. For many they may be big ads, sure, but for others, like reluctant readers, the movies and shows may be their gateway into reading via these magazines--I could see the Cars mag do that quite a bit, in fact.

I guess this has turned a bit into a defense of magazines, which isn't what I had in mind. The content within the Disney magazines I've seen is really good, and I just wanted to talk a little bit about why parents should make magazines like these a priority for their kids.

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