Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Wednesday, June 30, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Dear Highlights

Highlights Press: Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids by Christine French Cully

Highlights Press: Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids by Christine French Cully

Highlights Press: Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids by Christine French Cully

Highlights Press: Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids by Christine French Cully

Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids

by Christine French Cully

For the past 75 years, Highlights magazine has provided kids with entertaining and informative stories, puzzles, games and other activities to foster learning and spark children's creativity. One of the magazine's most popular features is its "Dear Highlights" column, where editors respond to letters, poems, drawings and (more recently) emails from young readers. But the responses aren't limited to the published ones: the Highlights editorial team answers every single piece of mail they receive. In Dear Highlights, editor-in-chief Christine French Cully collects dozens of pieces of correspondence from children, with accompanying essays reflecting on what she and her colleagues have learned from the kids who write to them. The result is a joyous, nuanced celebration of childhood, and a clarion call to adult readers to really listen to the children in their lives.

Dear Highlights is divided into broad categories, with letters addressing kids' concerns about family and friends, school challenges and dynamics, and how to figure out what (and whom) to be when they grow up. But the letters and replies also tackle difficult questions that many children face. "How can I be a supportive big sister and help my new sibling in a multiracial family?" Ashley wrote in 2011. K.D., whose parents had been separated for about a month in 1991, admitted, "Now my dad wants to come back. I'm not sure I want him back." Other letters deal with troubling historical events, such as the Challenger explosion or the attacks of September 11, 2001, the loss of pets or loved ones, and "Really Hard Things" like bullying, abuse and mental health struggles.

While their contents frequently address heavy subjects, the letters and the editors' responses are often infused with lightness. Readers' personalities shine through in the notes they send, such as a poem called "Hope" written by 13-year-old Kenneth in 1985. "I've seen hope in newspapers. I've listened to hope," he wrote. "HOPE IS EVERYWHERE." The editors seek to validate children's feelings and concerns, but always strive for a positive tone in their replies. They remind readers that they themselves, their families and friends, and other caring adults like teachers and school counselors have many resources at hand to solve their problems. They also call to mind the words of another adult who befriended many children: Fred Rogers, who famously advised his young TV viewers to "look for the helpers" when things seemed scary or sad. The Highlights editors, like Mr. Rogers, also encourage children to be the helpers.

The book includes a section about the Covid-19 pandemic, a unique event in the lives of Highlights readers as well as the magazine's editorial staff. As Cully notes, "For the first time, we were confronting many of the same emotions as our readers, at the same place in time. Our adult circumstances--working from home, being unable to socialize with friends, missing milestone events, and feeling bored--were very similar to their experiences." The staff empathized with readers like Sylvie, whose sixth birthday party was canceled because of the pandemic, or Makayla, who wrote, simply: "I miss my friends." They also assured readers that their parents, teachers and other adults (like scientists working to develop vaccines) were doing their best to keep everyone safe, and that production of the magazine would continue--no doubt a bright spot for bored kids in quarantine.

Written correspondence has its limits, Cully admits; letters and drawings rarely provide enough context to give a full picture of a child's concerns. Partly for this reason, in almost every response, the staff urges kids to seek out adults they can trust, whether they need help coming up with ideas to fill boring weekends or are troubled by deeper concerns. Notes and drawings about historical events, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, are often a way for children to process their part in collective trauma and grief. In every case, the Highlights staff seeks to answer with respect, compassion and (where appropriate) sound advice. Sometimes, Cully notes, readers write back to share the results of following that advice, or to ask for help with additional problems.

Taken together, the letters and responses in Dear Highlights are a fascinating look at childhood over the past seven decades, and a testament to how kids' fundamental concerns--being loved, feeling safe and learning how to navigate the world--remain the same. Full of humor, sadness, frustration, joy and all the other emotions of childhood, the book stands as an important reminder that listening to children with empathy and respect can be the most powerful way to help them grow into confident, caring adults. --Katie Noah Gibson

Highlights Press, $24.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781644723258, August 10, 2021

Highlights Press: Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids by Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully: Responding to Children with Curiosity and Compassion

(photo: Heidi Ross)

Christine French Cully is the editor-in-chief of Highlights for Children. She is also the company's chief purpose officer, which entails growing awareness and implementation of Highlights' purpose, core beliefs and values. Cully spent 15 years in children's publishing before joining Highlights in 1994. Dear Highlights, a compilation of children's letters, editors' responses and commentary, will be published by Highlights Press on August 10, 2021.

What was the inspiration behind creating and compiling Dear Highlights

This is a book we've long dreamed of publishing. We respond to every child who takes the time to send us a letter, e-mail, drawing, poem or story. Over our 75-year history, we've received more than two million pieces of correspondence from kids.

All this mail beautifully informs our work by deepening our understanding of childhood. Over the decades, kids have written to us as if we are a dear, trusted friend. When we encourage kids to share their thoughts and feelings, and when we listen with empathy, kids feel heard and seen. We hope this book will elevate kids' voices and remind grown-ups of the importance of leaning in to listen and learn.

How did you decide which letters/topics to include in the book?

Because the book is both a look at childhood today and a kind of time capsule looking back over 75 years, we looked for a sampling of letters from every decade of our history. We aimed for a selection of letters that represented the wide variety of subjects kids write about--universal concerns related to friends, family, and school, as well as serious concerns that are less frequently discussed but nevertheless very real in the lives of some children. We also selected letters that give us clues about how kids are thinking about the larger world--the societal changes that affect them and significant historical events. And, of course, we wanted to represent the letters of both boys and girls.

What have you learned from all these years of reading and responding to children's letters?

Our main conclusion is that most young children yearn for more moments when the grown-ups they love are fully present and listening with empathy and curiosity. They crave connection.

We've also learned that no matter how loving and attentive their family is, a child can find it difficult to confide in a parent. Sometimes kids withhold because they don't wish to hurt the parent's feelings or give a parent cause to worry. Some kids simply feel safer writing down their thoughts and big feelings--or drawing a picture to convey those thoughts. We've come to appreciate how willingly and bravely kids will share their concerns if they feel safe. And that safety comes from warm, responsive, trusting relationships.

We hope this book reminds parents that we must behave intentionally to create that kind of safety. When we do, we say to kids, "You matter. And what you think and feel matters." When kids feel they matter, they grow in confidence and develop a sense of self and a feeling of belonging. And that puts them on the path to becoming people who will make a more empathetic and optimistic world for us all.

What has shifted over the years as children have written to Highlights? What has stayed the same?

Although the world has changed tremendously in the last 75 years, kids haven't really changed that much. They want to know how to get along with family members, friends and teachers. They ask for tips on doing well in school and breaking bad habits. They ask for advice on how to achieve their goals and how to think about current events. The details in their letters vary, of course. But the fundamental questions are very much the same. Kids still want to feel they belong. They still want to be the best version of themselves. And they still look for guidance and support from their grown-ups.

One chapter, however, contains letters about a subject we had never before seen addressed: the chapter on Covid-19. When physical schools closed abruptly and kids found themselves staying at home--doing school on Zoom at the kitchen table alongside parents who were now working remotely--we heard from kids. They wrote to us about the challenges of digital learning, about missing friends and extended family, about canceled birthday parties and about their fear that they or someone they love might get sick. For the first time in our history, we were confronting many of the same emotions as our readers, in the same moment of time. We were able to empathize in a way we never could before.

Do you have any favorite or particularly memorable letters?

This is a hard question because many letters linger in my mind and heart. One of these letters was from a tween who described the "code" she was trying to live by with a bulleted list of behaviors. They mostly involved how she was engaging (or more aptly, not engaging) with her mother, crying herself to sleep at night, trying not to "burden" her mom with all her sad thoughts.

Was she describing typical behavior seen in kids on the cusp of puberty, or was this something more serious? We rarely have enough context in a letter to know for sure. But we were grateful we could write her back, validate her feelings and assure her that her mother or another grown-up she trusts would absolutely want to know how she feels. Sometimes kids are really asking us the most fundamental question: Am I loved? Does anyone really care about me? It's an honor and a privilege to be able to reassure them that they are, indeed, loved and cared about.

Of course, I have some favorite letters that are less weighty. I love the letter from the child who wrote to say that her school put on a play and they sang "Baby Beluga." Several months later, she said she still couldn't get the song out of her head and pleaded for us to help. I could relate to that problem!

We take every letter seriously, even the ones that make us chuckle a little. Any concern that troubles a child enough to motivate them to write to us deserves respect and attention.

What might readers learn from the letters and drawings in this book?

We adults often think we remember childhood clearly. But for most of us, our memories are spotty or blurred. Sometimes we can be a little dismissive of kids' concerns. After all, because we have hindsight, we know that most of the time, things work out fine.

But this collection paints a clearer picture of childhood--reminding us of the ups and downs of the growing-up years. It shows us kids' rich, complex inner lives--and can teach us not to underestimate their interest in understanding the world and finding their place in it.

The book also includes a selection of kids' drawings and original poems sent to us over the years. For some kids, self-expression with words is challenging. But their artwork can reveal a great deal about their inner thoughts. We look at kids' creative work carefully, and we often respond to a poem or drawing as if it were a letter asking for guidance. This was particularly true after 9/11, when we received many drawings and poems about the fall of the Twin Towers. Sharing their drawings and poems related to that horrific event was the best way for some kids to let us know they were working to process the trauma--and we reached out to offer support. --Katie Noah Gibson

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