Children’s magazines: We used to have it so good!

All my life I’ve been looking for a reason to criticise Emma Thompson. It’s not right; it’s not fair. But I can’t help it. It’s in my blood. My mum can’t stand her. “She’s so middle-class”, she’ll say, sniffily, standing in the fitted kitchen of the Cheshire house she shares with her barrister husband. Yes, that Emma Thompson. She’s not down with the likes of us.

I do, sort of, see what my mum’s getting at. The mind-blowing liberal smugness of Peter’s Friends, and the lingering aftertaste of the Branagh-Thomson 1980s public love-in should not be taken lightly. But still. It really could be worse. Imagine my delight, therefore, when I discovered that it actually is worse. Emma Thompson isn’t just an unimaginably annoying actress; she also writes crap magazines for little girls! Only it’s a different Emma Thompson, this time minus the ‘p’. Which makes me look a prat cos I didn’t realise this at first and wrote a whole post using the erroneous belief that they were one and the same person as a starting point. But still, having two Emma Thom(p)sons  – it’s gotta be worse than just one.

The other Emma Thom(p)son is the creator of Felicity Wishes, a sparkly pink fairy who offers little girls shit career advice with a wave of her sparkly pink wand (actually, I made that last bit up. She delivers the advice via the far more prosaic medium of magazines). There are lots of suitably girly careers that Felicity has to suggest: ballerina, beautician, cake-maker, glitter-butterfly-dream-wisher, that kind of thing. I’m not going to go into it in any detail here; The Alpha Parent has already done so quite brilliantly here. What interests me is Thomson’s response to this much-deserved criticism. It’s pretty damning, to say the least.

To be fair, it is admirable that non-actress Emma Thomson made the effort to respond to the blog post mentioned above, and that she did so in such a calm manner. If I were her I’d have just gone “well, fuck you, I’m a rich actress! There’s a career choice I don’t regret”. Then I’d have sought advice on the best way to flounce via an internet comments box (Thomson could probably pay for a professional opinion on this. That is, if she was the actress Emma Thompson. Which she’s not). But anyhow, that’s not what non-actress Thomson did. She wrote a very measured response. A very measured response, yet also a remarkably rubbish one.

If someone tells you something that you’ve written is total crap, should you:

  1. throw a tantrum
  2. argue that it isn’t crap
  3. sort of agree that it is but then argue that no one will read it much anyhow so it doesn’t matter

While the first option is the most fun, the second is probably the best. Yet Thomson has, unexpectedly, plumped for the third:

Of course, I am well aware of the allegorical impact of children’s stories. However, these were not books (intended to be read many times over) – the editorial content of these limited-life magazines often only have a single-read life span.

Not only does this suggest that “the editorial content” of these magazines is indeed rubbish, it displays a remarkable capacity to underestimate a child’s affection for a magazine.

I tend to buy magazines in Asda in order to keep my children quietly seated in the trolley. Usually they ignore this ploy and carry on grabbing random tins of spaghetti off the shelves. However, now and then there’s a magazine that totally captures their attention and won’t let go. And if it’s a shit magazine, you start to worry that it will poison their minds.

For me and my eldest, this occurred with one particular issue of Thomas and Friends, which included a comic strip story called “Dream On, Thomas”. In it, Thomas meets Spencer “from the mainland” and wants to be as big, strong and shiny as him. Only he isn’t. Not to worry, though, because hey, Thomas is still Really Useful ™. And that’s the whole story (apart from the bit in the middle where Thomas fucks up due to trying to be more special than he is). The moral? Don’t aspire to be remarkable because you’ll just make a prat of yourself; just be a good economic unit and leave being shiny to your betters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this story. Way too many. And the worst thing is, children memorise the words and won’t even let you try to slip in a more nuanced message:

And so Thomas decided he was happy to be Really Useful. Although ‘Really Useful’ for whom, that’s the question. Could it perchance be for the bigger, stronger, shinier characters? Could it-

MUMMY! You’re not reading it properly!

So there’s nothing you can do (other than play Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s The Ballad of Accounting at the end of every reading, in a desperate attempt to offer an antidote).*

On top of being in complete denial about repeat readings, Thomson seriously underestimates the extent to which the magazines you read as a child can stay with you. I can vividly recall the magazines I loved when I was younger. And I don’t mean stuff like Mizz, Jackie and Just 17. I mean the things I read as a pre-teen. And it wasn’t shit like Felicity Wishes. Hell, no. I read Nikki, possibly the most undervalued and totally fabulous magazine of all time.

No one ever talks about Nikki these days. People remember Bunty and Mandy but Nikki, the slightly younger, funkier sister, was way better, and for several years during the early eighties, it was my world. It didn’t offer rubbish career advice. It wasn’t pink and full of fairies. It was a magazine for girls that recognised one essential, pertinent fact: little girls are people, too, and as such they can be complete and utter psychos. Many of the stories Nikki featured were utterly mental, and terrifying, but I absolutely adored it. And for those of you who missed this total master of the pre-teen magazine world, here’s a run through of the best bits (or at least the ones I can remember):

  • The Comp – a regular strip included at the start of every edition, it documented the life of Sam Green after her arrival at a new Big School. Pitched betwixt the prissiness of The Four Marys and Grange Hill at its Zammo-on-drugs worst, it was perfect for anyone who hadn’t yet been to Big School and had no idea how boring it is in real life
  • School for the Forgotten – serialised strip. Selina Something moves into a new house. Every night when she goes to sleep she’s transported to the School for the Forgotten, a nightmare Victorian workhouse-style hellhole. I can’t remember how or if she escapes, just that being a passive voyeur in all this was rather good fun.
  • The School on Sinister Street. Can’t remember what happened in this one. I can only recall the title. But I imagine it was along the lines of School for the Forgotten, and hence total class.
  • The Power of Eve Black. Takes place at a boarding school where Eve Black is a total cow yet manages to gain more and more power over others. Eventually you find out that the headmistress intermittently turns into Eve Black by drinking an evil potion. How cool is that? (once again, I’ve no idea how it all ended)
  • Rosemary. The story of a girl who left her old school after being a total bully who had no friends. When she arrives at her new school, she finds she enjoys having friends but misses the bullying. Therefore she (Rose) pretends to have a twin sister (Mary) who goes to another school. This enables Rose to have fun with her mates and kick the shit out of them later. Result!
  • Fashion pages: no skinny models here – these pages were drawn by an artist! Good weeks were when C&A featured because there was a C&A in Carlisle. Bad weeks featured Tammy Girl because there wasn’t one of those in the whole of Cumbria (afaik).

Man, I loved Nikki! The stories totally creeped me out, but in a good way. They never made me feel I should be anything other than who I was. In fact they made me happy to be me, a girl who didn’t end up in a Victorian school every night or get slapped in the face by her best mate on the way home.

Surely, on some level, this is precisely the kind of crap that needs reviving for kids today? I wouldn’t even mind if non-actress Emma Thomson had a hand in it. In fact, as a kind of post-modern joke / way to make light of the fact that I mixed up the two when I first wrote this post, you could even have a “The Adventures of Emma Thompson (the actress one)” comic strip, along the lines of those “The Adventures of Five Star” ones you used to find in Look-In. Perhaps every night when Emma goes to sleep she could be sent back to 1980s Cambridge and have Footlights mysteries to solve alongside best mates Kenneth Branagh and Tony Slattery. But then you’d need to have a villain. Perhaps non-actress Emma Thomson gets into the story at this point. Hmm. This may need some development…

* From The Ballad of Accounting:

Did you read the trespass notices, did you keep off the grass?

Did you shuffle off the pavement just to let your betters pass?

Did you learn to keep your mouth shut, were you seen but never heard?

Did you learn to be obedient and jump to at a word?

That is just a small extract from one of the best songs ever. I suspect it was not written as a direct response to Thomas the Tank Engine. But it could have been.


4 thoughts on “Children’s magazines: We used to have it so good!

  1. I was looking for a magazine for my capable-but-reluctant-reader 8yo daughter, something like Bunty or Debbie (is that right?) with stories and real life stories and the odd kitten. Nothing. There are TV tie-ins and things called Sparkle with free lip gloss and Miley Cyrus on the front but nothing with any real content. Is there a gap in the market? If we wrote it would they read? Because there were loads of comics for 6-19 girls when I was young, loads. Surely one well produced, well written magazine would stand a chance even in today’s glittery lip gloss world.

    1. It’s all promotional tie-ins and stuff on how to look pretty. I don’t know what the market would be like for something else, and by “something else” I wouldn’t mean something boring like the Blue Peter annual. I think girls’ magazines in the old day had quite an edge, lots of ghosts and bullies and evil bitches from hell. I loved it! But I imagine if you pitched say a ghost theme, you’d immediately be ordered to tie it in with Twilight or something similar… But yes, I agree, something that was independent and funny and sharp would be brilliant!

  2. You might be interested in the Bring Back Bunty! campaign ( which is calling for a revival in girls’ comics. I was a Debbie reader, I think the intriguing Nikki must have been published after my youth had passed.

    Also the pedant in me has to point out that the marvellous actress Emma Thompson has a p in her name.

    1. Ooh, I’ll definitely be signing up for that campaign!
      Right, back to correcting this post yet again! It’s all a bit cringe, this. Can you tell I’m an editor in real life?

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