Most of 44 Pages, director Tony Shaff’s documentary about the family-owned magazine Highlights for Children, takes place in the magazine’s stately editorial offices in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. The film surfaces all the magazine’s editorial challenges — Highlights is aimed at children aged six to twelve, which is to say, several completely different audiences. It publishes girls’ and boys’ letters and drawings in exactly equal numbers, which is hard — boys are likely to send depictions of fighter jets and guns, which the magazine doesn’t publish. Features never include cultural touchstones like Santa Claus or Halloween witches because they are exclusionary figures; the editors tell us that this isn’t about political correctness — it’s about making sure all kids feel represented.
Staff members answer every letter they receive — about 3,000 per year — flagging those from children in crisis for immediate response and contacting the authorities when needed. The privately held Highlights has never published advertising and relies entirely on subscriptions for revenue. Shaff relates the magazine’s history through interviews with founding family members and the quietly amazing editorial team as they prepare the publication’s seventieth-anniversary issue.
Anyone who’s worked in editorial or a similar environment will recognize the staff’s focus, creativity, and sharpness. There’s a warm strain of Fred Rogers genuineness here, too, along with only the gentlest of irony, found so uniformly throughout the office that it’s not much of a surprise to learn that the magazine’s leadership works up psychological profiles of all job candidates. Such is their sincerity and commitment that, while watching, it’s likely all the easy jokes that might occur to you about the magazine racks in the lobbies of dentists’ offices will evaporate and you’ll wonder if they might be hiring.
Directed by Tony Shaff
Opens April 18, IFC Center
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 17, 2018