Ensuring the Future of Children's Literature

by Bethany Snyder

No matter your course of study or career path, perhaps nothing is as foundational to success as literacy. Through The Highlights Foundation, Kent Brown Jr. ’65 carries on his family’s tradition of promoting children’s literacy.

The grandparents of Kent Brown Jr. ’65, Garry Cleveland Myers and Caroline Clark Myers, published the first issue of Highlights for Children in 1946. They sold 20,000 copies in their first year in operation, mostly door to door. You’re likely familiar with its colorful pages and its slogan, “Fun with a Purpose,” whether you flipped through the magazine in a doctor’s office or waited excitedly for a copy to land in your mailbox.

By 1995, the magazine — with its familiar features like Goofus and Gallant, Hidden Pictures and The Timbertoes — had nearly three million subscribers. Today, Highlights is an international media brand. Editorial direction of Highlights magazine, which has sold more than a billion copies, was eventually handed over to Brown. An English major at Hobart, he functioned at Highlights for more than 30 years, including as editor-in-chief. In 1990, he cofounded Boyds Mills Press, the trade book publishing division of Highlights. A past president of the United States Board on Books for Young People, he is a member of the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Society of Magazine Editors and the National Press Club.

Perhaps Brown’s greatest contribution to children’s literacy, however, is The Highlights Foundation. Established by Brown in 1985, the goal of the foundation is to, according to its mission, “improve the quality of children’s literature by helping authors and illustrators hone their craft.” “Someone has to create the ‘Fun with a Purpose,’” says Brown. “The foundation targets all those who seek to benefit children by what they read and see.”

For more than 25 years, the foundation hosted a once-a-year, week-long Writers Workshop at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. “It seemed to me that if we could provide opportunities for writers and illustrators to share their ideas, processes and knowledge with each other, then we would be ensuring quality literature for future generations,” Brown says.

While the program was successful, Brown and his staff realized they could offer more specialized and individualized workshops throughout the year — and they had the perfect location in which to do so — the same place where the magazine was brought to life, the home and property of Brown’s grandparents. The quiet and secluded property in rural Honesdale, Pa., was the ideal spot for writing retreats and workshops.

For the past 20 years, Brown and his staff have welcomed more than a thousand writers and illustrators to the grounds to participate in lectures, one-on-one critiques, creative activities and group workshops. “We want to give authors and illustrators uninterrupted time to hone their craft,” says Brown.

By 2012, the foundation added a conference center; two years later, they completed a new lodge. They now offer more than 40 programs year-round, including “Unworkshops” that provide a retreat for those who just want to work on a project.

“In the end, it’s the readers — children of all ages, from pre-school to young adult — who are the beneficiaries of the Highlights Foundation,” says Brown. “The task is to help writers and illustrators create inspiring, meaningful, engaging content.”

The future of the foundation is bright. Helmed by Brown’s son George Brown as executive director and niece Alison Green Myers as program director, it continues to focus on diversity and is expanding into podcasts and online courses. Campus and facility upgrades are ongoing.

“It’s impossible to calculate the rippling effect,” Brown says. “An aspiring writer is sitting in a class led by Patti Gauch or Jerry Spinelli; listening to a lecture by Traci Chee; watching Floyd Cooper’s amazing illustrative techniques; learning how Leah Henderson dives into character development. They start to experiment. Something connects. The books they create are read by thousands. They teach others what they’ve learned. New books are created. New readers enjoy the experience. I don’t think it’s possible to quantify the far-reaching effects of authors sharing with other authors their craft, knowledge, successes and failures, the hopes and dreams that drive them to create.”


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