'44 Pages': Film Review

A feel-good but slight portrait.
4/18/2018

Tony Shaff's documentary looks at the past and present of Highlights, the long-lived kids' magazine.

Slipping into theaters a few weeks before Morgan Neville's much-loved portrait of Mister Rogers, Tony Shaff's 44 Pages centers on another idealistic staple of American childhood, Highlights for Children. Made on the occasion of the magazine's 70th birthday, the doc observes the start-to-finish production of the anniversary issue while tracking the publication's roots back to the married couple who started it in June 1946. Overflowing with wholesome vibes yet not sappy, the film provokes warm feelings, even if its subject doesn't really demand feature-length treatment.

Spending most of its time inside the old-fashioned Pennsylvania manor that houses the entire editorial team, Pages introduces one friendly face after another, chipper people who clearly mean it when they say they love their work. (If they were 10 percent happier, you'd think the place might be home to a secret cult.) Most of the action revolves around editor Judy Burke (who started as an intern and worked her way up) and the newly hired art director Patrick Greenish, Jr., who intends to introduce a clean redesign in the anniversary issue. They're surrounded by support staff who, it seems, all participate with equal commitment to inspiring kids who are "creative, caring, curious and confident."

Editor in chief Christine Cully helps flesh out the story of a family business started by Garry and Caroline Myers, teachers who worked for another children's magazine before deciding to launch their own. Kids and grandkids carried the torch — their son had the business-saving idea to sell subscriptions to dentists and doctors for their waiting rooms — always focused on "fun with a purpose."

We see how some perennial features, like the Goofus and Gallant and Hidden Pictures pages, evolved over the years. But the film pays special attention to the sections that incorporate readers' own writing and drawing. Unbelievably, staffers personally respond to every letter they're sent, and on occasion have wound up helping kids out of abusive situations.

Highlights, intent on the purity of what it's putting in front of children's eyes, runs no ads at all. There are many other things editors do not allow in its pages. You won't see Santa Claus, nor will the October issue have witches running around — not out of a disdain for Halloween, it turns out, but out of respect for Wiccans, who deserve better than the warty-nosed caricature we know. Over and over, interviewees refer to considerations of "sensitivities," and to a vetting process that includes consulting advocates for the disabled and the like.

The magazine's insistence on steering clear of troubling or controversial content can challenge editors. (You try writing intelligently about dinosaurs without making creationists grouchy.) And its conscientiousness about representational inclusiveness has had blind spots: We see kids of many races in the art shown here, but the magazine didn't depict a pair of same-sex parents until after this film was shot. (It's also hard to ignore the overwhelming whiteness of the editorial staff; maybe it's hard to get people of color to move to Honesdale, Pennsylvania, population 4,180.)

Checking in periodically on the planning and development of the birthday issue, we meet some freelance illustrators, watch the tweaking of headlines and even sit in on a couple of pretty cute focus groups. (Will kids care that their favorite magazine is 70 years old?) The movie leaves home base occasionally, to visit corporate offices in Columbus, Ohio, and see the university that stores every letter and drawing kids have sent in for nearly three quarters of a century. We hear about the Highlights app, of course, full of interactive content. But the doc, like most of its interviewees, clearly sees the digital world as an afterthought, preferring the nostalgic excitement of getting something colorful in the mail — 44 pages whose pictures don't move, and whose stories aren't trying to sell kids a single thing.

Director: Tony Shaff
Producers: Rebecca Green, Tony Shaff, Laura D. Smith
Executive producers: Maida Brankman, Robert A. Compton, Jessie Creel, Kerri Elder
Director of photography: John P. Campbell
Editor: Amanda Hughes
Composer: Richie Kohan

90 minutes