THE WEEKLY READER and the electronic publishing company iUniverse announced last week a joint venture that will allow students and their teachers to write and publish books quickly and inexpensively.
From their classrooms, kids and teachers can log on to the Weekly Reader Web site and click the link for Build-A-Book. About a month after keying in their work, they will get it back in a paperback format with a four-color "custom cover," according to the announcement. A minimum of 25 books is required for printing.
Weekly Reader is stepping into the future. But my mind went the other direction, to my childhood experiences with Weekly Reader. The magazine used to make predictions, remember? By the turn of the century we'd have cars with wings. But I don't remember anything as outlandish as e-publishing or "digital content technology," also mentioned in the announcement. Or, for that matter, Web sites with links to anything. Spider webs, maybe. Weekly Reader loved spiders.
It was just a plain publication with a few black-and-white photos, the news highlights of the week and some academic exercises -- a sort of USA Today for kids. Growing up in Montana, I remember reading about the Korean War. My future wife, growing up in Detroit, remembers the late 1950s stories about the Dodgers and Giants moving to California and Alaska and Hawaii joining the union.
Vicky L. Williams, my dental hygienist in Towson, remembers taking her copies of Weekly Reader home to the North Dakota farm where she grew up and reading them while her parents read their newspaper. "I thought it was cool because it made you feel you had your very own newspaper," Williams remembers. (Williams is younger than I, so she probably had television. For my generation, Weekly Reader was a primary source of news.)
For Cynthia Spicer, director of elementary and middle schools in Caroline County, it was her very own paper. Her parents in Montgomery County paid for it. "We didn't do lessons from it in school, but we all took it home and read it there," says Spicer.
My point here is that, with the possible exception of Crayola and Scholastic (a fierce competitor), Weekly Reader is probably the most recognizable brand in American education. We didn't learn to read by Weekly Reader, which has always been a classroom supplement, but for millions of us the periodical is part of our literary life. And in a highly competitive business, Weekly Reader still claims an audience of nearly 10 million children in 90 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts.
Weekly Reader (also known and trademarked as My Weekly Reader) is a series of periodicals, each "age-appropriate" to a grade, pre-kindergarten through elementary school. (Weekly Reader Corp. also publishes Know Your World Extra; Read; Writing!; Current Events; Current Health; and Teen Newsweek, the last in conjunction with the news magazine.) It carries a bulk price of $3.25 to $4.95 per child for 25 to 32 issues, depending on the publication.
This month's kindergarten editions have introduced children to school, discussed apples and the value of breakfast. There are rhyming activities and a page of phonics exercises as the children get ready to learn to read.
Current events get more notice -- and text gets more complex -- as the readers move up in the grades. Third-graders came back to school this fall with a feature on Erik Weihenmayer, the blind man who climbed Mount Everest, while second-graders read about bullying. "People in Colorado," says the article, "recently passed a law about bullying. The law will make sure schools teach students about bullies."
The Weekly Reader publication I found most fascinating is Extra, billed as a magazine for remedial readers in middle and high school. It's precisely what middle school teachers tell me they've been looking for: high-interest stories told in simple language. For example, "Caught in the Act" in the Sept. 7 issue examines the possession-of-alcohol charges against Jenna and Barbara Bush.
"Some people think that teens of famous people should set a good example for other kids," says reporter Noel Neff. "Then again, is it fair to expect any teen-ager to behave all the time?"
Such nonjudgmental language is a hallmark of Weekly Reader, though, as I remember, the magazine flew the colors during the Cold War. Rosanna Hansen, the current publisher and editor in chief, says her editorial board, which works much like that of a newspaper, "won't shy away from a topic if we think it's important, but it has to be in good taste, and we can't embarrass teachers."
Depending on how you look at it, this school year is Weekly Reader's centennial. The magazine, says Hansen, is an outgrowth of Current Events, first published in the spring of 1902 and for a long time the publisher's flagship publication. But the first Weekly Reader was launched in 1928 by Eleanor Johnson, director of elementary schools in York, Pa.
So there'll be celebration next spring, and Hansen says, who remembers her first encounters with Weekly Reader as a child in Huron, S.D., "It's a wonderful brand. Wherever I go, people know it."