It might be a little slight and not entirely suited to feature-length, but 44 Pages is a feel-good celebration of a long-time American institution.
I’ve never heard of Highlights for Children, the idealistic 70-year-old kids’ magazine that is the subject of Tony Shaff’s new documentary, 44 Pages, which arrived on Netflix today. I feel like I’m missing out. Apparently a staple of the American childhood – we had The Beano here in the UK – Highlights seems to represent a wholesome attitude to kiddie creativity and entertainment, which the feel-good film evokes. It might be a little slight for a feature-length examination, but, you know – only 44 pages. What can you do?
The Netflix documentary traces the production of the 70th anniversary issue, but it also reels back through the publication’s history, to the married teachers, Garry and Caroline Myers, who started it in 1946. Since then the responsibilities have been handed to children and grandchildren, but the mandate has remained the same: pure, educational fun, totally sheered of any spiky edges, and delivered – ingeniously – to the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists, full of nervous young eyeballs eager for a distraction. Highlights feels like something that might spill out of a high-school time capsule; a record of life before our age of tacky civil decline.
44 Pages flits back and forth between the manor in Honesdale, Pennsylvania that houses the entire editorial staff, and the corporate offices in Columbus, Ohio. The story is relayed by a wealth of enthusiastic and committed employees, from editor Judy Burke, who worked her way up from an intern, to editor-in-chief Christine Cully, newly-hired art director Patrick Greenish, Jr., support staff, freelance illustrators and a charming focus group. The evolution of long-running features is explained, and the incredible revelation is made that every letter and drawing submitted by readers has been personally responded to by staffers and stored in a university for 70 years. I rarely even reply to emails.
And as an editor, let me just say: thank goodness I’m not an editor at Highlights. The magazine runs no ads whatsoever, and is militant about not causing the slightest offense to anyone, anywhere – refusing to even depict images of witches in October out of sensitivity to Wiccans. It’s slightly absurd, of course, but the interviewees are so earnest in their conscientiousness that you can’t even giggle at their naïveté. On the contrary these people, so dedicated to nurturing and preserving the innocent enthusiasm of youth, seem smarter, more worthwhile than all of us. For 44 pages, and for 70 years, Highlights has given kids the most precious and rapidly-eroding gift of all – it has let them be kids. Long may it continue.