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How to Talk to Young People: Guide Editor Explains

In an interview with Spectrum, Guide Editor Randy Fishell talks about how 10 to 14-year-olds have changed, the power of humor, and why caveats find their way into his stories. Bonus: A cartoon just for Spectrum readers.

Question: You have served as editor of the church's Guide Magazine, aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds, since 1999. That's the longest any of the seven editors have served except for the magazine's first editor Lawrence Maxwell, from 1953 to 1970. How has the magazine changed during your 16 years at the helm? How has your thinking about the magazine changed?

Answer: I’ve actually been with Guide since 1989, starting as assistant editor. Twenty-six years later, it’s still hard for me to believe that God would grant me the privilege and joy of being associated with this publication. By the way, I was able to spend some time with Lawrence Maxwell a few weeks before his death. He really set a grand trajectory for what was then Junior Guide. The Adventist Church is indebted to the strong foundation he built for the publication.

The magazine has changed in several ways since 1953, not the least of which was changing the name from Junior Guide to Guide in 1964 — the year earliteens officially became a part of the publication’s target audience.

It’s also been interesting to observe the slow shift from what I would call a rural, primarily Caucasian emphasis to a more urban multicultural tone. This can be seen in both artwork and story line.

I’ve also seen a gradual shift from stories rooted in behavior modification to stories that more overtly affirm a personal relationship with Jesus. There will always be a place for character-building stories in Guide, but as editor I’ve tried to ensure that stories of relationship — both interpersonal and spiritual — are given ample space in the magazine.

On a more personal level, I may go down in Adventist publishing history as the "editor of the caveat.” This stems from my strong conviction that God is often quite unpredictable. Too often we’ve provided to Adventist young people a spiritual paradigm that leans heavily in the direction of cause and effect. While this is a sound principle in general, it’s not always true of God’s ways. I’ll use Psalm 34:7 as an example: “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.” That’s a great Bible verse, but in reality, it doesn’t always work out that way. My best friend’s parents were both killed by robbers while they served as missionaries in Africa. A former college religion classmate was slain by a bandit in South America. The list could go on and on, but my point is that I very often add a sidebar caveat to help readers understand that just because a story went this way in Guide doesn’t mean it will turn out the same way in every circumstance. In some ways, I wish I didn’t have to do this; it would be simpler to send kids into adulthood with a sure-fire spiritual formula. But as editor, I feel that it’s my responsibility to not put God into a box of human construction. Complicating the matter is the reality that our target ages of 10-14 encompasses readers of both concrete and abstract reasoning abilities. It’s quite a balancing act!

How do you think today's young people are different than young people were in the 1950s when Guide was launched? How does Guide attempt to reach young teens today? How do young people think differently about the Adventist church than older people?

Electronic media has dramatically reshaped young people since Guide’s inception, first with television and later with digital media. The latter has reshaped the actual physical brain structure, as Dr. Linda Caviness of La Sierra University and others have so powerfully demonstrated. While digital media has unleashed a whirlwind of good, it has also desensitized many young people to the noble traits mentioned in Philippians 4:8. 

It seems to me that today’s young person is also subjected to much more personal and societal stressors than in certain past generations. Divorce, changing definitions of marriage, terrorism, and more all converge to make life considerably more complicated for twenty-first century kids.

Among other things, we try to reach today’s kids by providing stories that (1) connect to and reflect their experience, (2) engage them visually, and (3) contain a practical application. We also have a very robust website: GuideMagazine.org.

I am incurably optimistic about today’s young people. Studies show that today’s young person is considerably more altruistic, environmentally conscious, and at least on paper, often smarter than their parents. Combine this with the power of the Adventist message and lifestyle, and these kids can soar! 

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that far too many Adventist churches do not appear to take ministry to juniors and earliteens terribly seriously. There may be ample felt boards in the church building, but are there wall-mounted TV screens and other media that can be so wonderfully employed in taking kids to the next level of spiritual experience? Are local leaders taking advantage of the Adventist Church’s robust children’s ministry online training courses? There is much work to be done. Still, nothing can substitute for a spiritually-mature adult befriending a young person. Because that does in fact often happen, today’s juniors and earliteens are still open to spiritual pursuits. (Sadly, in too many instances I cannot say the same for high schoolers.)

What do you most enjoy about editing Guide? What do you find the most challenging?

First, I should qualify the term “editor.” While I like to think I have some skill with words, I do not consider myself to be a hardcore line editor. Rather — and this is far and away what brings me the greatest joy — my leadership at Guide has revolved around a never-ending quest to find creative yet substantive ways to share the beauty of the gospel and the benefits of the Adventist message and lifestyle in the magazine. 

As part of this pursuit, I often rely on the “smile factor.” You don’t need to occupy an office on Madison Avenue to know that humor communicates. So along with more serious stories and features, I like to make kids laugh. My column, “The Good Humor Guy,” has been written with this goal in mind. I also draw cartoons and run them as “Smile File” features.

In the end, along with painting an accurate portrait of God’s love, I want Guide to be viewed as a “Sabbath boredom buster.” Incredibly, too many Adventist young people still have a lackluster Sabbath experience. If Guide can in some small way disrupt this tragic state of affairs, so much the better.

Perhaps the most challenging part of being Guide editor is trying to meet a wide diversity of readers’ preferences. Well, actually, that’s not the most difficult part. The hardest part is meeting a wide diversity of readers,’ parents,’ and Sabbath School leaders’ preferences. One particularly gracious adult summed up my editorial leadership with these exact words: “I’d hate to be you on Judgment Day.” Enough said.

As a writer and a cartoonist, you have certainly have brought a lot of humor to Guide. But how do you know what young teenagers find funny? 

I try to be aware of what makes middle schoolers and junior highers laugh by snooping around their territory a little bit. Much of this is done online. For example, I would have never known the huge impact such role models as “Captain Underpants” was making on today’s young person were it not for such research. I’ve also stumbled across such stellar literary works as “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” during these sessions. Seriously, it’s not hard to know where kids are at if you pay attention to their media preferences. 

Of course, having three boys of my own didn’t hurt either.

How do you think of new things to say after all this time at Guide?

The beauty of this job is that everyone has a story. No, not everyone has a story suitable for Guide, but kids and adults are always experiencing God and His involvement in their lives in fresh ways. We’ve published nearly 15,000 stories since 1953, and I don’t see the story tub emptying anytime soon. But again, it is the challenge of discovering new stories and creative ways to present them that keeps my editor-ship sailing.

Over the years I’ve devoted a significant amount of time to developing ancillary Guide products. These include the Guide’s Greatest book series, Trouble on the Blue Planet (The Great Controversy) and Running on Empty (The Desire of Ages) graphic novels, Guide FACTory Quiz Game dvds, and many books. I’ve never had trouble finding something to do at Guide!

I should also mention that I’ve always made it a point to hire assistant editors whose line editing skills are stronger than my own. These wonderful compatriots include Helen Lee Robinson, Rachel Whitaker Cabose, and Laura Sámano. Having world-class designers onboard such as our current designer, Brandon Reese, hasn’t hurt either!

What purpose do you feel Guide fulfills for the Adventist church?

Our mission statement probably says it best: "Guide’s mission is to show readers ages 10-14 how to walk with God now and forever."

To the best of my knowledge, Guide is the only weekly Christian publication for 10-14 year olds. This is nothing short of astonishing, and is a remarkable reflection of the priority the Adventist Church placed on nurturing its young people. The Youth’s Instructor had its time, but church leadership knew it was now time for a new approach in connecting with juniors and ultimately earliteens as well. 

I suppose Guide’s readers are concentrated in North America. Would the same content fit readers in other parts of the world?

Yes, at least much of it. Indeed, it has been a long-held dream of mine to make Guide available and affordable to a global audience. I am hopeful that this can happen digitally sooner than later. I have encouraged the “bundling” of Guide, i.e., make Guide available as customer needs demand. 

I would love to see Guide offered as part of a powerful lineup for juniors and earliteens that would include Guide, PowerPoints and/or Real-Time Faith Sabbath School quarterlies, print and/or digital, along with other similar products. 

Along other lines, why not make arrangements for all Adventist publishing houses around the globe to use Guide’s digital files and then tailor and deliver the magazine either digitally or in print to the children in their region of the world, in their language?

Right now the circulation is about 20,000. The potential is much higher.

What was your previous experience before becoming Guide editor?

I attended the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary before serving as a pastor to youth and university students in Seattle, Washington. I have coauthored and authored several books and many articles. 

With the closure of the Review & Herald, the publisher of Guide, have you had to relocate?

I declined the invitation to join the Guide team at Pacific Press in Nampa, Idaho. Currently I am serving as Guide editor from my home in Maryland. I have a one-year contact that expires in January, 2016.

What do you plan to do next? 

I am waiting for God to hit me over the head and spin me around, pointing me in the direction of a meaningful future. At present I have no definite post-Guide career plans.

Will you draw us a cartoon — one just for Spectrum readers?

 

 

 

See Randy Fishell's personal website at http://www.randyfishell.com.

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