This Sunday, the New York Times will devote two pages to a giant luge maze.
It’s not something you’d expect to find in the venerated, 166-year-old newspaper. But the luge maze, created in honor of the winter Olympics, is the centerpiece of the paper’s new monthly kids’ section. And parents be warned, on the kids’ A1, below a version of the classic newsprint logo that’s buried under snow, there’s a warning: This section should not be read by grown-ups.
But the kids’ Times is so delightful, both in its design and its content, that grown-ups may ignore the warning. There’s a “funnies” section illustrating an embarrassing moment where a student’s “sad music” playlist went off during class, testimonials where kids talk about how they made their best friends, fun facts about Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, and even an explainer on North Korea.
“I like to say, we’re a little bit like a really good Disney film,” says Deb Bishop, the art director for the project. “It’s for parents and kids.”
This Sunday’s edition will actually be the third NYT for kids ever, and will come complete with sections that mimic the adult version–National, Opinion, Style, Arts, Science, Travel, and Food. The first edition came out in May of 2017, and the reaction was so positive that the section’s editor Caitlin Roper said the paper decided to do another one in November 2017, and then to make it a permanent addition to the last Sunday paper of each month. She recalls the initial influx of emails and messages from kids–via their parents’ accounts–writing in to tell her how much they loved the section. Some showed children doing the activities posed in the section, like making a pizza-sized cookie. One email, she says, declared, “Dear New York Times, I am so happy to see that you have finally created something for me.”
Parents were thrilled, too. “It’s a way to get kids off the phone for a while,” Bishop says. “The values and the content–there’s really nothing like that out there.” One tweet from a parent noted that he had been on the verge of canceling his subscription until the kids’ section arrived on his doorstep.
— Peter Ruddell (@ruddellp) May 14, 2017
The tweet points to how even stalwart institutions like the New York Times are struggling in an ever-changing media climate. The paper has tried many new strategies meant to offer readers more reasons to subscribe, but much of that ends up on the paper’s website, through things like VR films, daily 360-degree videos, and interactive graphics. The kids’ section, which is only in print, is an attempt to be more creative in traditional newsprint. The section is generally aimed at kids between the ages of 8 and 14, and while Roper says there’s no market research motivating the issues, it could surely help the paper to hook youngsters early and turn them into newspaper readers.
To ensure the team is getting enough input from their young target audience, Roper speaks to about a dozen 10-year-olds for each issue, listening to the things they care about and are interested in. Then, she travels to a different fourth grade classroom around the country and interviews every child in the class about their opinions on a variety of topics. These interviews form the basis of the “Opinion” page–a staple of the Times for grown-ups.
Their responses are both hilarious and wise. In the new issue, Roper travels to a fourth grade class in Chicago where she learns how one girl feels passionately that all TV shows and movies should be on Netflix while others are concerned about animal rights. Several children, unsurprisingly, have grievances with homework and tests. Here’s one particularly hysterical example from a previous issue:
The New York Times kids section is back AND ???? LAMIRA ???? IS ???? NOT ???? HERE ???? TO ???? PLAY ???? pic.twitter.com/2a2KRY8UGE
— MJ Franklin (@heyitsfranklin2) November 19, 2017
But other kids have more serious subjects on their minds. Nine-year-old Delano Oliver III believes that football players should be allowed to kneel because of racial injustice, saying “I am proud of the NFL players who knelt, because it shows that they care about how everyone should be treated fairly.” Nine-year-old Mischa Gonzalez says, “I’m Mexican, and I hate that Trump is trying to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. We need a good president, not a mean, grumpy old one.”
The section manages to successfully fit within the paper’s voice and identity–while also being fun and silly enough to appeal to children. The upcoming edition’s logo is covered in snow, and a previous edition highlighted the “for kids” part using a big illustrated dollop of slime (there was a recipe for how to make the gooey stuff inside). The Times‘s brand was not taken lightly: When tossing around ideas for the April issue, the duo knew they could never include any April Fools’ jokes, because they wouldn’t do anything to erode the trust of the Times‘s readers. The same goes for the design. “With the graphic design, you don’t ever want to make fun of the New York Times. It’s the New York Times. It’s more to have a little bit of fun with it, to show it’s friendly and it’s cool,” Bishop says. “The poking fun a little bit, the slight bit of irreverence, gives us an edge and makes it fun for kids and adults.”
— Abraham Cho (@abrahamcho) May 13, 2017
They had to strike a similar balance in the stories’ tone. Roper says they were careful to not talk down to kids and instead give them real information while being fun, playful, and engaging. For instance, the science page in the latest edition has a Mad Libs game about the weather; the giant Olympics luge maze is scattered with information about the Olympics, and the correct ways through the maze ensure you get to each fact-bubble. “The idea is to be delightful, be entertaining, but also we’re the Times–we’re not creating factoids in starbursts,” she says.
For Bishop, creating large artworks like the luge maze to fill the sections’ pages is one of the challenges, because they’re so time-consuming. But she hopes that the section’s poster-like covers–like the sledder at the top of a hill on this weekend’s A1–end up hanging in kids’ bedrooms and classrooms around the country.
“It’s always amazing to me, as a designer, you want to do the sophisticated projects, the serious projects,” Bishop says. “But the kids’ content area is so rich.”