It's a Wonder Full Life
As it hits the century mark, the official magazine of the BSA stays as relevant to Scouts as ever.
By Mary Jacobs
WHEN HE WAS a kid, Adam Sonzogni waited "desperately" for each issue of Boys' Life to arrive in his mailbox. He devoured every page and developed a love for reading that's still part of his life.
Now a volunteer Scouter in New Jersey's Patriots' Path Council, Sonzogni laughed one night recently when he caught one of his sons reading the magazine under the covers by flashlight, when the kid should've been asleep. The 39-year-old dad says that his two oldest boys, both Cub Scouts, have followed in his footsteps, running to the mailbox every month looking for their copies.
Over the past century, scenes like that have played out in the lives of millions of boys. And this year marks the 100th anniversary of Boys' Life. Since the publication of its first edition in March 1911, the magazine has thrilled readers with stories about sports, outdoor adventures, Scoutcraft, and hobbies.
As the official magazine of the Boy Scouts of America, and the nation's oldest continuously published magazine for boys, Boys' Life occupies a cherished spot in the collective memory of many Scout leaders who read the magazine when they were young. Smart Scouters know, though, that Boys' Life remains much more than a fond memory; it's a useful tool for keeping Scouts inspired and engaged, for recruiting new Scouts, and for encouraging young people to develop a love for reading.
What better time than now, as you gear up for fall's recruiting season, to ensure that every Scout in your unit can look forward to a copy of Boys' Life landing in his mailbox?
HITTING THE 100-YEAR MARK and thriving at a time when many print publications have disappeared mark both a historic milestone and a significant achievement for Boys' Life. With about 1.1 million subscribers, the publication continues to rank among the nation's largest-circulation magazines. So what is it that keeps boys reading when they have so many other media and entertainment options?
"I think Boys' Life has always sparked the imagination," says Editor in Chief J.D. Owen, "It shows the infinite array of things you can do as a Scout and even as a young man."
Reading Boys' Life, younger boys can "tag along" on high-adventure activities such as trekking through Philmont, sailing at the Florida High Adventure Sea Base, or paddling the northern boundary waters of Minnesota. They can read stories about their favorite sports heroes and true tales of Scouts who saved lives. And they can discover exciting new fiction in short stories written just for them by award-winning authors such as Gary Paulsen and Thomas Fleming.
The magazine has changed with the times, though. Current issues of Boys' Life feature articles about video gaming, new technologies, and the latest gadgets. And it's green. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative, an organization dedicated to promoting sustainable forest management, certified Boys' Life in 2009.
Still, boys continue to enjoy many of the magazine's old favorites—Scouts in Action, Think & Grin jokes, Pee Wee Harris comics, Bible Stories, and Hitchin' Rack, and the letters column answered by Pedro the Mailburro—that Scouters read when they were growing up.
The 100th-anniversary issue of Boys' Life, in fact, celebrated the occasion with a few excerpts from issue No. 1, including articles about how to tie an overhand knot and build an igloo. Much of this early material was published almost word-for-word—a testament to the timelessness of many articles in Boys' Life over the years. "Even in that first issue there were some things a kid can still use," says Managing Editor Michael Goldman.
Boys' Life has inspired many reluctant readers to get excited about reading. Today's Scouters remember discovering stories by authors in the magazine's pages that they continued to read throughout their lives. Among those authors were some of the world's best, including Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, P.G. Wodehouse, Pearl S. Buck, Zane Grey, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury.
And Boys' Life remains a great tool for helping Scouts develop a love of reading. That's not just us talking. The magazine has been honored by the International Reading Association and was named Periodical of the Year in 2007 by the Association of Educational Publishers.
But to continue promoting a love for reading, Scout leaders must make sure that their boys are subscribing to the publication. That's why the Mid-America Council instituted an initiative last fall to ensure that 100 percent of its Scouts were subscribing. As part of its 15-point Great Expectations program, subscriptions to Boys' Life were automatically included as part of the annual membership fee paid by all Scouts in the council. "If you join a baseball team, everyone wears the uniform," explains Lloyd Roitstein, Scout executive of the Mid-America Council. "If you're in Scouting, we think you should read Boys' Life, and we wanted to make sure every single young man gets every issue."
If a family can't afford to pay the annual fee, the council helps out with available funds. "For us, this isn't about selling subscriptions," Roitstein adds. "It never has been. It's about the entire Scouting experience."
Scoutmaster John Shores of Troop 282 in Omaha, Neb., thinks the 100 percent subscription plan is a good idea because Boys' Life helped his troop grow and thrive. After reading about Philmont in the magazine, several of his boys were inspired to make the trip themselves—and had an unforgettable experience, he says. "Boys' Life helps strengthen that commitment to Scouting. It's in the mailbox once a month and reminds Scouts of all the opportunities that Scouting offers."
"Boys read about the adventures others have," Managing Editor Goldman says. "They realize that if they stay in Scouting, they can have those adventures, too."
Troop 282's experience is by no means unusual. One study showed that Scouts who subscribe to Boys' Life stay in Scouting, on average, 1.8 times longer, according to the magazine's circulation manager, John W. Ingram. Whether publishing a story about an exotic adventure, a how-to article about building a survival shelter, or one about using a GPS, "Boys' Life opens doors to adventures," Ingram says. "Kids don't get junk mail, so when a boy receives his own copy of Boys' Life, with his name on it, it's a big deal.
Equally important, Boys' Life showcases the fun of Scouting in a way that draws new boys into the program. Brian Perry, a Cubmaster in the Mohegan District, Connecticut River Council, brings his copies of Boys' Life to recruiting and joining nights. "It's a great tool for other parents to see," he says. "It's so helpful to be able to use the pictures and show people what Cub Scouts do, rather than just trying to tell them what they do. It only takes a quick read to get them hooked."
PAUL EDWARDS FACED a challenge. As a committee member of Troop 444, Catalina Council in Tucson, Ariz., Edwards needed to convert an "adult-run" troop into a "boy-led" troop. To spark the boys' imagination, he brought copies of Boys' Life to a meeting. After the Scouts pored over articles about adventures other troops had experienced, the ideas began to flow. Soon, the troop that had camped out just a few times a year, and always in the same location, began expanding its horizons.
"Several months later, they were on their way to a pro ballgame hundreds of miles away," Edwards says, "the next year's summer camp was in another state, and the parents got behind the idea of getting a troop bus." In addition, several of the troop's Scouts attended Philmont and the national jamboree, and some even earned their Eagle Scout rank.
Although the boys did all the work, Edwards says, "Boys' Life was the catalyst. It showed the Scouts and their parents how you can do much more than just camp at the same place three times a year." Which might explain why Adam Sonzogni, whose sons love the magazine, continues to read it, too.
"Thirty years later, it still evokes wanderlust and adventure," he says.
Dallas-based freelance writer Mary Jacobs is a frequent contributor to Scouting magazine.
Want to see more Boys' Life archives? Visit boyslife.org/wayback to see every cover in the magazine's history and read entire issues dating back to 1911.