March/April 2007 (pp. 34–36)
Oh, You Kid!
Thanks to Alexander Isley and his team, an 80-year-old classroom standby has a bright and shiny new face
By Rebecca Bengal
My Weekly Reader, that slim, eight-or-so-page venerable chestnut of kid-targeted news, has for nearly 80 years held a reputation as a staple in grade schools throughout the country, applauded in the classroom and archived for years. Its debut issue, dated September 21, 1928, featured a McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer-style aesthetic and illustrations and recounted the story of a fidgety, pre-presidential Herbert Hoover whining to his Quaker father, “Dost thou think meeting will be over soon?”
But of course the Weekly Reader (now minus the “My”) is a primer of sorts, dedicated to talking to kids about their world and making the news relevant. Over the years, it has expanded to seven editions, from Pre-K to Senior (grades 5 and 6), with two printed in both Spanish and English. Six of the seven editions boast a circulation of more than 500,000; combined, there are 4.5 million subscribers, representing 90 percent of the school districts in the United States. Yet as recent years saw the rising popularity of relative newcomers in children’s-magazine publishing—Time for Kids, National Geographic for Kids, and Scholastic News, among them—relevance became the question. Weekly Reader’s age had begun to show.
The Weekly Reader presidential election poll has famously predicted 13 out of 14 U.S. presidents, erring only in 1992, when readers chose George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton. Although early editions were not exactly free of editorializing—in 1938, a headline read “The World Wants Peace Yet Spends Millions for War”—all editions are now carefully monitered by educators and editorial staff for signs of journalistic bias. “After 9/11, there was a reaction about kids seeing some of the images and disturbing elements,” says Ira Wolfman, Weekly Reader’s senior vice president of editorial. “We don’t want to create hopelessness, but we don’t want to create [falsely] happy news.” News stories often feature kid angles—Iraq war coverage focusing on soldiers returning home, for instance. And since the first issues, rarely has an issue rolled off the press that failed to include an animal feature of some sort: “Meet Miss Sea Cow!” (1935), “Ostrich Guards Junkyard” (1984), “Hard Times for Honeybees” (2006). Claiming to understand exactly who a kindergartner is and what makes a third grader different from a fourth grader, Weekly Reader addresses its readership in a tone that is both stalwart and earnest.
So when it came time for a cover-page update, who better for the job than Alexander Isley, the multidisciplinary design firm and the man responsible for designing that irreverent icon, Spy? “Well, I knew Alex’s work from Nickelodeon,” Wolfman clarifies. “And from when I worked over at Sesame Street magazine.” That Isley’s crew is renowned for its work in children’s publications and groundbreaking print work certainly didn’t hurt. “One thing that was mentioned, from their focus groups, was that Weekly Reader was missing a cool factor,” explains Tara Benyei, an art director at Isley.
“I wanted to bring in more of a consumer magazine mentality,” Wolfman says. “Not meaning the Brad and Jen breakup, but more visual excitement, visual architecture, more awareness of how kids read, and how to get them turned on to reading.”
Over the years, Weekly Reader has been taken on by a variety of owners (it is currently owned by WRC Media, which also owns the education software company Compass Learning and The World Almanac)—and has endured its share of design changes. Paging through a compilation of its first 60 years is a little like reading The Onion’s satiric anthology Our Dumb Century; walkie-talkies, paper clothes, and the Cold War appear in retro-futurist ‘60s graphics and ‘70s bubble fonts. The publication made the big switch from newsprint in the ‘80s; now, printed on 38-pound offset coated stock, Weekly Reader has earned its glossy-magazine cred.
The cover transformation, designed by Isley and adapted by Weekly Reader creative director Amy Gery (who overhauled the Pre-K to grade-2 editions) and art director Jeff Talbot (who tweaked the headline and body fonts for the older-kid editions), provided a striking sensibility that could be modified to incorporate into the magazine’s interior.
“When we came to Weekly Reader, the covers were a little text-heavy, which made the magazine seem younger,” Benyei notes. For a market so bombarded with Saturday morning cartoon and commercial aesthetics, the cool factor in kids’ publishing treads an extra-fine line. “About nine years ago, in children’s publishing, there was the feeling more color and art and fonts thrown at the reader would create more visual stimulation,” says Gery. “But in years since, I’ve seen a lot of kids’ magazines realize that once they tone it down, once they have a strong template, they can allow the design to actually take place.”
That framework is what Isley delivered. The most prominent transformation involved the nameplate. The Weekly Reader logo, a red circle containing the white letters WR, is strong and bold, even superhero-esque. Before, the nameplate was just a small square on the page, top-left justified, with the logo resting above a tiny banner that read, in about 18-point type, “Weekly Reader.” While its competitors’ logos borrowed from the name recognition and cover aesthetic of their parent magazines (Time for Kids uses the trademark red lettering and border; National Geographic for Kids, the iconic yellow border), Weekly Reader’s name read smaller than its cover headlines. It wasn’t even easy to identify as a magazine.
“So,” Benyei explains, “we put in a red bar to make it pop out. The bar became something Weekly Reader could own; the bar could accomplish what their competitors have done with the border.” Isley and Weekly Reader designers made a clear division between the grade-4 and Senior editions (5 and 6 combined), which were trotted out in Fall 2006 and renamed WR News—with the superhero-esque WR logo at left and the header NEWS boldly occupying the remaining two-thirds of the nameplate—and the Pre-K to grade-3 editions, which launched in January 2007 and retain the name Weekly Reader, bannering across the magazine in a gorgeous, resonant cherry-red bar. Explains Isley managing director Aline Hilford, “The distinction helps us with what we were charged to do. Magazines help children learn to read; when they get older, the magazine helps them read to learn.”
With small changes, the design progresses subtly from age to age, attentive to the kids’ practical needs as well as their gender expectations. The preschool editions rely on a more simplified color palette and are still printed on uncoated stock—the better to draw on in crayon and pencil.
“For the older kids, we don’t use pink and purple in the color scheme,” Benyei says. “The younger ones don’t yet know how to recognize a typewritten letter a, so we have to use sans serif. As the grades go up, the composition becomes more advanced. Maybe the lateral edge of a butterfly wing overlaps a sidebar, and by Edition 4 [fourth grade], you can have things like a person’s head popping out over the title bar.”
For a magazine that must appeal to and sit well with three major audiences—the teachers and school officials who order the magazines; parents;and, of course, the kids themselves—the new cover design permits a flexibility in treating the news in an informative and engaging way. Where the old Weekly Reader has the dubious appearance of a textbook supplement, the new look, says Gery, allows the designers to go after something more “contemporary, airy, and playful.” One of the first redesigned Edition 4 issues focused on the role of kids in community rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina; it also gave an update on the Hezbollah conflict, and questioned whether recess games like tag and touch football were becoming too dangerous.
What sets Weekly Reader apart from other children’s publications is that it strives to be a magazine that 5-year-olds and 12-year-olds alike will want to read. “This is a great iconic brand,” Wolfman reflects. “Reading is the key thing in education, and you should let your name read well—you should be proud of your name, and it should be bold and strong. The red and white nameplate on the early elementary editions speaks Weekly Reader in a way it didn’t before. It pops, it has presence. Before we were whispering it, but now we’re shouting our name: We’re Weekly Reader and we’re damn proud.”
© 2007 Print
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