1. Beginnings and Technological Challenges
I was introduced to Child’s Way, the precursor of Brilliant Star, in 1980 when I began working for the Bahá’í Publishing Trust in Wilmette, Illinois. Though I’d been a Bahá’í since 1971 and had twin girls, born in 1973, I was poor enough that I couldn’t afford the modest subscription to the children’s magazine, even if I had known it existed. When I was hired to work full-time at the Bahá’í National Center, however, I did discover it, and a long and satisfying relationship began. My daughters submitted stories, art, and poems for the “Letters” section, and I began to write poetry, stories, activities, and songs that were published in the magazine over the years before I was actually hired as a staff member in 1995.
Publishing the magazine in the 1980s and much of the 1990s was a long and labor-intensive process. Before the publishing aid of e-mail and scans, the mostly volunteer staff filled the pages one by one from volunteer contributors. Each story, article, or activity required correspondence and phone calls. The illustrations and photos were solicited from individual artists. All of the text and art came in via regular mail. Sometimes text could be faxed, but the process of acquisition was slow. Once the pages were edited and filled, the words had to be typeset and pasted up, leaving spaces for the art to be added during the production process. Once the issue had been printed, original artwork needed to be returned to the artists or filed away.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the editors could use computers for magazine production, with the advent of Corel software. Editors still had to enter all of the text by hand, rather than import files automatically, since e-mail was not yet available. Staff members received physical copies of all the pages to proof, which were returned with edits by mail. Then each change each staff member had received were added, one by one. Just thinking about it makes me tired!
Today, there are three full-time staff, three part-time staff, and two regular part-time freelancers who work together via computer and e-mail to produce the 32-page magazine in print plus the website at www.brilliantstarmagazine.org. And what a plus it is! The evolution of this website began in 2005 with a conference called by the Universal House of Justice, which stimulated consultation among filmmakers, editors, and others on the subject of media for children. Developing a website as a means to educate children via content that centered on Bahá’í principles, a love of virtues, and character development became a necessity to accompany the print magazine into the media future.
One feature the website incorporates is a section for parents and teachers. Visitors can access articles about children’s education, both in the family and in the classroom. Recently, a section was added that recommends various articles, activities, and stories to support the Ruhi curriculum for children and junior youth.
2. The Mission of Brilliant Star
Developing Bahá’í educational materials for children to access has been an ever-evolving process. Before Child’s Way and Brilliant Star, there was a pull-out section in a regular publication that was sent to the American Bahá’í community. For the most part, the content contained ideas developed for adults to use in classes for children. In the late 1960s, graduating to a separate black and white magazine, Child’s Way was produced. It focused on publishing stories and activities that children, families, and teachers could use. In the 1980s and 1990s, stories, articles, and activities were developed that could be integrated into the lesson plans for children’s classes.
In 1983, Child’s Way adopted a new name, Brilliant Star, drawn from a prayer that many children in Bahá’í homes memorize, “O God, guide me, protect me, make of me a shining lamp and a brilliant star. Thou art the Mighty and the Powerful.” With the new title came a larger 8.5” x 11” format. Over time, spot color and full color began to appear on the internal pages of the magazine. Today, every page of the magazine is printed in the glorious full color that is so attractive to the eyes of children.
Since its beginning, this changing publication was intended to educate Bahá’í children about their religious identity. Then, in 2003, the mission for the magazine opened up to include religious education for all children, regardless of their faith. Stories about Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and heroes in Bahá’í history continued to be included, but a more concentrated effort began to be made to present material in a manner that didn’t use terminology developed solely within the Bahá’í community as it was thought that this might which be a barrier to readers from other religions. For instance, activities centered on the Bahá’í Funds were no longer published, as only Bahá’ís can contribute to them. However, activities that develop and support virtues that are fundamental to contributing to the funds, such as generosity and charitable service, were and still are regularly included.
3. The 35th Anniversary: Taking Stock
In 2004, Brilliant Star observed its 35th anniversary. It was time to take stock, so during its annual meeting, the staff consulted with Alice Letvin, the editorial director of Carus Publications, responsible for a whole family of award-winning magazines, including Cricket and Spider. She generously reviewed several issues of Brilliant Star and gave helpful feedback, which resulted in these enhancements:
1. The narrowing of Brilliant Star’s target audience, from 7-12 year-olds to 8-12 year olds.
2. The addition of feature attractions designed to cultivate loyalty on the part of readers. Today, we feature Lightning and Luna, two kid superheroes who battle villains with negative qualities. We also feature Nur the firefly, who demonstrates arts and crafts; Maya, our lover of science and nature; Riley, a health-oriented cockatoo, and several others. And other featured creatures appear regularly, presenting songs and jokes. Recently we added an environmental science page, “We Are One,” and a feature called “Space Ace,” in which kids can ask questions of Bahá’í NASA scientists George Hatcher and Dr. Stephen Scotti. “Radiant Stars,” in which kids send in their pictures and answer questions about their favorite things and the theme of the issue, is a popular feature. And “Stargazer” presents interviews with Bahá’ís who tell us how their religion is reflected in their work. “Shining Lamp” gives thumbnail biographies of Bahá’ís who have accomplished wonderful things.
3. The incorporation of more spiral learning. Since we present concepts such as the oneness of humankind many times throughout the year, we were encouraged to look at topics from different angles each time they are mentioned, rather than try to present exhaustive coverage each time a topic appeared.
4. The reliance on humor to inform.
5. The presentation of concrete examples when explaining abstract concepts.
Also in 2004, acting on a recommendation from the delegates at the Bahá’í National Convention, the National Spiritual Assembly decided to make Brilliant Star available at no charge to children throughout the American Bahá’í community. Every child registered at the Bahá’í National Center receives a gift subscription of Brilliant Star from the time they turn seven until their thirteenth birthday. Though the magazine has paying subscribers around the world, this generous gift provides the children of Bahá’í community members with an active connection to spiritual ideas and values. From the feedback we have gathered by means of surveys done of readers and their families, we have no doubt that kids love to get a special magazine sent to them in the mail.
4. A Collective Creative Process
About once a year, the staff gathers for an annual meeting. Only three of the eight full-time, part-time, and regular freelance staff live in the Wilmette area, so this a good time for everyone involved in the magazine to connect as a creative family, to learn from workshops presented by staff or other art and writing professionals, and to formulate the themes for the upcoming year. Theme development is an ongoing process throughout these few days spent together. As guidance from the latest messages of the Universal House of Justice and the National Spiritual Assembly are read and digested, ideas for themes are pulled out from the text, concentrating especially on sections that pertain to children, junior youth, and youth. Injunctions to the whole community are also mined for themes to address issues and for actions currently stressed by these guiding institutions.
Every two months, the staff meets via a computer chat program to discuss ideas individuals have brainstormed in terms of themes for the upcoming magazine. The staff then concentrates on the approach that will be adopted in order to develop and present this theme. Because we often are looking at a principle or tenet that we have addressed before, the editors are always looking for ways to present these concepts from a fresh angle.
For instance, we have published more than one issue that kids can use as a visual tool to share the Bahá’í Faith with friends. In 2005, we were brainstorming about one such issue. We liked the idea of maintaining a reverent tone in the issue, but decided to add a touch of lightheartedness as well. One of the staff suggested having the whole magazine centered on an alien who visits earth, searching for signs of peace. The idea was that his home planet had emerged from war at some time in its past, and the civilization was thriving. What would he find on this planet?
Initially, this idea was met with some resistance. An alien finding the Faith? But as excitement rose and ideas started flying, everyone’s “extraterrestrial eyes” were opened to the possibilities. The characters of Zeke and his robot dog Rhombus were born, and the issue became an exploration of the discoveries Zeke makes when he runs into some Bahá’í kids. The September/October 2005 issue was titled “Search for Peace: Exploring the Bahá’í Faith,” and the cover featured Zeke and Rhombus who, having exited their space vehicle, float above the earth, looking down with interest. It was one of those magazines which flowed into existence almost seamlessly.
5. Love is the Secret
There is much more to the story that cannot fit into this short overview. For example, there have been over 30 people associated with the magazine from the time I sent in my first piece for possible publication. But I must mention one in particular: the visionary editor of Brilliant Star, Amethel Parel-Sewell, who encourages everyone to come up with new ideas and has a way of fostering the growth of each of the staff members individually and also as a team. Others who have been with the magazine for at least 15 years and have helped shape Brilliant Star into an award-winning magazine and website are Aaron Kreader and Lisa Blecker, both graphic artists and writers who, since 1998, have consistently added their unique voices and style to the pages of the magazine. Another person key to the work of the magazine is Amy Renshaw, who started as an activities editor for the September/October 2000 issue and quickly graduated to senior editor and now helps consolidate and coordinate the efforts of all the writers, editors, illustrators, and graphic designers. The entire staff of Brilliant Star is, and always has been, a family of creative people who love children. And that is the operative term defining the work of these artists and educators — love. As I am about to retire from my job at Brilliant Star, I can look back and say with absolute certainty that it is love that radiates from the pages of the magazine. And it is love that emanates from the screens of the computer, tablet, or phone on which the Brilliant Star website is viewed. I feel blessed to have discovered Brilliant Star not only for my children and my children’s children, but for myself.