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FROM FILMMAKING to chess to rock 'n' roll, children's magazines are almost as varied as children themselves.

But publishers haven't stopped at the bubble-gum crowd.

Increasingly, they are setting their sights on preschoolers.

"The at-home magazine market is where publishers are trying to snag future customers, by starting the leisure-reading habit early," says Don Stoll, executive director of Educational Press Association.

At first thought, a magazine for children who can't even reach the coffee table seems a little ludicrous. But the idea behind new publications like Ladybug, published by the Carus Corp., is to get the tots to look forward to the day when they can comprehend words like "ludicrous."

Children's magazines like Cricket, also published by Carus, and Highlights have been encouraging elementary-school children to read for decades.

But new magazines are created each year to meet two sets of demands, say those in the publishing industry: parents who want their children to read more often, and children who are growing increasingly sophisticated.

"There's a lot of quality and a lot of creative work, particularly with the (magazines children get at home)," Stoll said.

On the newsstands today you will find Sports Illustrated for Kids; Penny Power, put out by Consumer Reports, and National Geographic World, published by the National Geographic Society. Even Time magazine has plans for a news weekly for children.

But a magazine for toddlers?

Robert Willmot, director of corporate communications for Ladybug, said, "We found in our 17-year experience with Cricket that many parents wanted something for young children because they wanted to encourage their preschoolers to read."

Willmot says it was a combination of market research and parental requests that led to Ladybug, which debuts in September.

"The difference between Ladybug and other children's magazines such as Highlights is that Ladybug considers itself a literary magazine, whereas the others are more activities magazines," Willmot said.

The first issue of Ladybug features 36 pages of stories, poems, and songs, with a four-page activities insert intended to develop perception and motor skills.

Another area of growth has been in magazines tied to toys and television shows, such as Alf Magazine and DuckTales Magazine (which features Scrooge McDuck and his three nephews).

Karen Poepsel, parent-infant educator at the Buffalo Children's Guild, says a toddler's lack of motor skills would make a literary magazine a good choice. "An activity like identifying pictures of a bug and then reading a story about the bug would be better for (toddlers than a craft-oriented activity) because it makes better use of the skills they do have," she says.

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