“Just imagine,” the promo reads, “Zane Grey, one of the most successful writers of the day, contributing thrilling adventure experiences for the new Boys’ Life!”
Young people who opened their October 1923 copy of Boys’ Life magazine were met with those tantalizing words — and told to look for a story by Grey starting with the very next issue.
The first of these stories, the magazine promised, would have “more action, thrills and excitement crowded into it than you have ever believed could be put into one piece of writing.”
Boys’ Life — and Grey himself — delivered on that grand promise with “Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon.” In this true story, written and photographed by Grey, the author recounts his experiences capturing mountain lions alive.
Yes, that means Grey and Boys’ Life kept readers on the edge of their seats for six months — a testament to the patience of young people at the time.
Today, on what would have been Zane Grey’s 150th birthday, let’s look back on the Western writer’s contributions to young readers.
‘Bigger and better in every way’
Everyone was talking about Boys’ Life at the Boy Scouts of America’s 1923 National Annual Meeting.
The big news: the organization was investing $100,000 (about $1.6 million in today’s dollars) to make the magazine “bigger and better in every way,” as Scouting magazine wrote in its national meeting recap.
This “new epoch in the Boy Scout Movement” would include collaborations with big-name authors like Grey — “that master of outdoor stories,” Scouting wrote.
That such a big-name author contributed to the BSA’s official magazine should come as no surprise to longtime readers.
Whether as Boys’ Life back then or Scout Life now, we’ve seen big-name writers contribute exclusive fiction to the magazine for more than 100 years. That includes popular authors like Gary Paulsen, James Patterson, Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, P.G. Wodehouse, Pearl S. Buck, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Walter Dean Myers, Jeff Kinney and many more.
Why was the BSA compelled to expand the original fiction offerings included in its magazine for young people? The August 1923 edition of Scouting magazine had something to say about that, too.
All who have had any experience in work for boys realize that the average normal boy spends considerable time in reading. Some boys still do some of their reading away from home, or in the attic, or when the home-folks are not looking on.
Ordinarily this means they are reading something of vital interest to them, with some doubt as to whether the home-folks would fully approve.
The challenge, for many parents, was finding age-appropriate stories that young people would actually want to read. And the plan, as told in Scouting, was for Boys’ Life to print stories that were “wholesome as well as interesting.”
It’s been nearly 100 years since that 1923 National Annual Meeting.
In 2022, if someone told you that today’s young people spend “considerable time in reading,” you might scratch your head and say, “I guess if you count reading TikTok captions.”
That makes it even more important to provide young people with quality reading material they’re sure to enjoy, something Scout Life excels at today. (Subscribe to Scout Life here.)
Grey’s message to Scouts
Less than a year after publishing the serialized version of “Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon” in Boys’ Life, Grey released the story in book form, further expanding its reach.
Grey addressed the book’s introduction “to the Boy Scouts of America and Readers of this Book.”
He wrote about the need for Scouts to help protect the open spaces that serve as the backdrop for his stories.
“Our open country, that is to say our uncultivated lands, forests, preserves, feeding and nesting swamps, are threatened by the march of so-called progress and commercialism,” Grey wrote.
After calling on Scouts “to save some of our green, fragrant, untrammeled land” for future generations, he shared his thoughts on Scouting itself:
The Scout movement is one of the most splendid developments of young America. Through it, the future generations will learn how to fare in the outdoors, and will study the great lessons that nature teaches. To love hikes and camps and horses and dogs, to seek the wild creatures with more desire to study them than to kill, to learn to accomplish with the hands, to meet difficult situations that arise, to endure pain and privation, to cultivate strength of body and simplicity of mind — these are the things that make a good Scout.
Connecting with Scouts
Throughout his life, Grey didn’t just connect with Scouts, Scouters and Scouting alumni through the written word. He also took time to meet with them in person.
In 1928, Grey went on a fishing expedition in the South Sea Islands. Included in his crew were two Eagle Scouts: Lionel Barnard Jr. and Robert Carney, both members of Troop 4 of Pasadena, Calif.
“These boys have now returned with stories of angling for the giant sail fish,” Boys’ Life wrote in 1929.
A decade later, Grey was photographed meeting with Scouts from Troop 6 of Altadena, Calif., where Grey also served as a troop committee member. The photograph is seen above, as it appeared in the February 1939 issue of Scouting magazine.
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Scout Life has partnered with Google Books to archive more than 100 years of Boys’ Life magazine. Explore that archive here.