“We really wanted to be part of the solution rather than the problem”

The tweenager is regarded as a comparatively recent phenomenon, though the Oxford English Dictionary can trace the first use of the word ‘tween’ back to 1941. It refers to the pre-teen stage of life: the later years of junior school, the point where you are starting to be too old for Santa and the tooth fairy, but not cynical enough to be a teenager. It’s an innocent kind of age, and it’s this innocence that has seen the term’s use by advertisers rocket in the past twenty years. The Spice Girls were probably responsible for the initial meteoric rise, the tweenager being, effectively, their target demographic.

Setting aside the quality and variety of the music and films being pushed aggressively at the tweenage girl, it seems fair to say that the age group are badly served by their magazines. Such publications seem to treat them as consumers first and people second, as this wall of pre teen magazines for girls suggests.

Enter Vivien Jones, a woman who has worked in the magazine sector for years and has two teenage girls herself. She has been looking at the market for tweenage girls with increasing dismay. The kind of magazines on offer for girls were: “About shopping, about consumerism, about beauty and how they looked. We’re talking about magazines aimed at girls aged eight-12-years-old. It was just really disappointing.”

So, she decided to do something about it. “I had this idea [which] had sort of been bubbling away for a while, and then I was talking to a friend – an old friend of mine who I’ve known since I was at school – she lives in Sydney now”. This is Nicky, the co-founder of Kookie. “She’s originally trained as a graphic designer but she now works as an editor and she was just really into the idea. And when I said to her: “It’s kind of a feminist magazine for tweens”, she was just on board. So, from there, we just started talking about it and we decided: ‘If not now, then when?’, and: ‘If not us, then who?'”

The decision made, the pair started a Kickstarter appeal in September 2017. “We raised fifty thousand pounds for the year so we’re gonna publish it in the UK and Australia. Originally, there was always going to be the plan to do an Australian version, but when we started talking to people in Australia, they were so keen on it we just thought, ‘You know what, let’s just do it.’”

“When I had the idea, I started doing some reading [around the area] and the Girl Guides do a survey every year … the results from that were just depressing. You just saw girls, pre-teenage, full of potential and confidence and then, as they get older, just suddenly realising that it’s important that your hair’s shiny and you wear these clothes and you buy that, and – I mean I’ve seen it with my own daughters – we really wanted to be part of the solution rather than the problem”. She adds “I think resilience is an important part of it, so we thought by showing girls [a range of] women in all kinds of different roles – and the whole magazine is produced by women and the girls – and all the content [is also produced by women and girls]” She concludes “We just felt that we could kind of give them a stronger base to stand on as they move into their teenage years, bless ‘em.”

I think girls are interested in a really wide range of subjects … they have no idea that that’s what they should be interested in, until they get told it, over and over and over again

Vivien spent her early years in Botswana where, as a child, she had a subscription to Twinkle magazine and was passionate about horses. She mainly grew up in Hong Kong: “I came to university here [UK] then lived in Hong Kong, worked in magazines. I’ve always worked on the editorial side – I’ve not been a publisher before. But, I’ve been a managing editor so I’ve worked in the commercial side of it.” She moved to the UK seven years ago.

Kookie is being funded by Kickstarter: “We’re not taking any advertising so we need a really good subscription base to found the magazine on.” Vivien continues: “It’s a minefield advertising to children anyway. I know in some countries it’s illegal until they’re about twelve”. She adds: “One of the things that I objected to [with] the magazines that are out now is the plastic tat that comes on the front of them. It’s the momentary pleasure and then it’s thrown away and I can’t bear that.”

Kookie will have a free poster in issue one, but Vivien is adamant: “We didn’t want to advertise, we didn’t want to get into any dialogue with them [advertisers] about ‘will we accept this advertising, will we not?’. We’d rather just not make consumers of them if we can, hopefully, make the magazine commercially viable by building a subscription base. And we believe we can because this age group is still reading magazines – they still read print magazines – and, in fact, I think it’s one of the sectors of the publishing industry that’s still growing, so I think we feel confident there’s a market out there that we don’t need to take advertising [for] to fund the magazine.”

Kookie will be different to other magazines in that its readers will be creating content for the magazine, rather than merely consuming it. Readers will be working alongside the editorial team and freelancers to produce this.

“It’s important that they are given a voice and that they feel their voice is important and valued. I think that that’s a great sort of strength as they grow older; that they feel entitled to their own opinion, they feel entitled to say ‘No’”, says Vivien.

She is also bringing personal experience to the project: “There is certain things I’ve seen with my own girls … for example, we’ve got a feature called ‘Let’s Solve It’, which is about plastic in the oceans, and I know when my kids were younger they’d have something at school about environmental awareness and climate crisis and they were just terrified. It scared them – they didn’t know what to do about it. It just seemed so big, so we wanted to create a platform where kids could feel that their ideas – no matter what their ideas are – are valuable. So, we have that, and we have a debate section. In the first issue it’s ‘Should mobile phones be allowed in school?’ or asking them ‘Should you have to work for your pocket money?’, so that they can get into a debate about it.”

“There are interviews as well. We had three girls from a school in London go and interview a woman called Anne-Marie Imafidon. She started a group called Stemettes and she’s a really fantastically enthusiastic 27-year-old maths genius, and we had a couple of girls interview Darcey Bussell for the first issue. They went [to the interview], they came up with the questions – ‘What was the biggest mistake you ever made? – and questions that they’re interested in. It was really important to us that they feel interested in it and that they get a sense of autonomy and confidence that their opinion matters. [They] can see their own words in print – that’s pretty powerful.”

I asked Vivien how she would describe Kookie if she was talking to a parent of a preteen girl: “I talk to parents about the opportunities Kookie will show girls. I think some people have raised the question of, ‘Well it’s all a bit wordy, you know, with your role models.’ I mean, of course there’s lots of content in there, and to be honest I don’t think that that’s a fair accusation, I think girls are interested in a really wide range of subjects and we’re really selling kids short if you just think that this is what they wanna be interested in. Because they have no idea that that’s what they should be interested in, until they get told it, over and over and over again.”

In issue one, Vivien said: “There’s stuff about sleepovers, recipes for making slime, and there’s all kinds of stuff like random questions kids might ask, like how to make a lemon powered clock. There’s a problem page, there’s most embarrassing moments … It’s a kids magazine, but it’s not a kids magazine that’s about how they look or being a consumer, and there are lots and lots of parents that are on that page. But, at the end of the day, it’s the girls that are gonna read it and enjoy it and I’m very mindful of that: of creating a magazine that’s fun for them and that they feel [they have] ownership of.”

I then asked Vivien how she would describe Kookie if she was talking to a pre-teen girl. “I would tell them about all the great content, the quizzes, the slime recipes and the fact that they’re encouraged to write in and take part and that it’s their magazine. Maybe they’ve got ideas of what they’d like to see in it – they’re absolutely free to contribute. We’ve [also] got a pets page.”

Potential readers are already contributing and Vivien has been in email correspondence with a reader about one of their sections: “There’s a section called – it’s a small section – called unsung heroes where they can nominate somebody who they think is great who hasn’t had any acknowledgement, and she’s nominated her art teacher, who’s had cancer but who’s recovered and is back.” She explains: “We’re making it, but it’s their magazine.”

There has never been a time when there has been so much discussion about diversity, difference and inclusion. How can Vivien ensure that Kookie appeals to a range of preteen girls?

“Yeah, that’s a good question – that’s a conversation we’ve had fairly often as well. And, for Nicky who’s in Australia … it’s just a completely different country – there’s vast swathes of it that will be hard to access. One of the sections we’re having – it’s called Kookie girls – and in Australia it will be about [a girl in Australia] In the UK, it’s about a girl in the UK, maybe living a different [life], maybe someone who’s home-schooled, there may be someone who’s disabled, that’s kind of a different life to possibly some of the readers. That’s one thing.”

I get that over and over from people when we ask them what advice would you give yourself as a tweenager: just to not worry about what people think

In issue one, the interview with Anne-Marie Imafidon was conducted by: “Three girls from a school in Tower Hamlets, which is probably a fairly disadvantaged area of London, and they were all first or second generation immigrant children, and they were just fabulous – they were so great.” She adds: “we want to represent kids from every walk of life and part of the country.”

It also goes beyond the UK: “The other thing is, we’ve got a ‘girls around the world section’, because I think it’s important that kids in the UK can see the similarities with lives of kids in other countries and the differences. So, we’ve got two lined up actually: one from a girl who lives in Shanghai and one from a girl in Johannesburg.”

She explains: “My kids would come back from school and they would talk about Africa like it was this one country and they’ll have some sort of benefit for Africa again and again … they have this vision of Africa and I really wanted to engage with a girl who actually lives a a not dissimilar life, because …I don’t know, it seems [some] people’s view of the continent, people who live in the continent …”. She breaks off, then adds: “Without a doubt, there are many issues in Africa, but there are also people living successful lives”.

Vivien concludes by saying that the ‘girls around the world section’ will have a simple format of questions asked to each participant: “‘What time do you get up?’. ‘How do you get to school?’. ‘Who’s your best friend?’. ‘What do you like to eat?’, and then they can see the similarities and the differences.”

We talk about the importance of role models for girls, and I ask Vivien who her roles models were growing up.

“Oh gosh, that’s a good question.” While a keen reader as a child, she hadn’t watched TV when she was living in Botswana: “People who were my role models were a bit closer to home.” Her main ambition as a child was: “To work in the supermarket because I wanted to work on the till. In fact, it’s one of the questions that we’ve been asking people – we did a bit of a social media thing and we asked our contributors, ‘What did you want to be when you grew up?’ Some people knew from the start; other people were like me – just liked the idea of working on the till.”

Later, after the interview, Vivien emailed to say “I’ve been thinking on your question about female role models. For me, I suppose it was really my mum. We were quite isolated from TV and media in Botswana in the 1970s so she was my main role model. She ran a nursery school from our home and was (still is at 83) a very capable and resourceful woman.”

In terms of role models for girls today, Vivien said in her email: “Malala Yousafzai springs to mind immediately, but I am constantly coming across amazing girls who are doing great things. Like Amy and Ella Meek of Kids Against Plastic (they’re in our first issue!) and Amelia Fox in Australia who’s heading to NASA with her invention.”

When we were talking on the phone, she mentioned having read Caitlin Moran’s book, How To Be A Woman: “I had my daughter stand on a chair and shout ‘I AM A FEMINIST!’ She was about nine, and now they sort of roll their eyes at me a bit.” She added: “Anybody who’s prepared to dance to the beat of their own drum [is positive]. I always say that to my girls, because my younger daughter’s just 13, and she’s just started high school, and I see all the kind of pressures of high school starting to pile on her shoulders. So I suppose people who are true to themselves is the most important I think. You know, I get that over and over from people when we ask them what advice would you give yourself as a tweenager: just to not worry about what people think.”

Getting back to examples of good role models for tweenagers today: “Emma Watson I guess; she’s quite outspoken for girls and she’d be a dream interview subject.” Within the magazine: “We’ve got a section in it called ‘rad girls’ which is different sorts of subjects each time. The first issue, it’s about girls in music so we’ve got girls who are playing in a band and I met a girl who was busking in Chester who’d been around the world with her dad. A role model doesn’t have to be a Darcey Bussell. We had the opportunity to interview Darcey Bussell and there was that thing of – I mean, she’s on TV, but actually she’s a phenomenal athlete, and an exceptional artist – and that’s what we wanted to talk about with that kind of depth, not, you know, ‘What are the frocks like on Strictly?’ Though I was certainly tempted to”, she laughs. “She was great and she was very encouraging to the kids.”

Issue one of Kookie, which includes Bussell’s interview, came out in early December 2017. “I’m talking to a distributor at the moment, but [currently], it’s only available online. You can buy it from our website. You can’t buy it in stores at the moment. We are a quarterly and WHSmith’s not so interested in selling a quarterly.”

There are plans to get Kookie into the shops, however.

“Definitely. The idea is that eventually we’d like to be publishing it monthly and then we’d definitely be able to be stocked in a bricks and mortar store. But, in the meantime, we’ll probably go with an independent distributer and be in independent shops, which is fine. And I think selling on the internet is just so easy now – everybody buys online.”

Issue One of Kookie is out now

Image one is an illustration of Kookie founders Vivien and Nicky. Vivien is shown on the left of the picture, holding a diary or book. Nicky is shown on the right of the picture, wearing a shoulder bag out of which a copy of Kookie magazine can be seen poking out.

Image two is a photo of Vivien Jones with her two daughters. Vivien is wearing a stetson hat

Both images provided by Vivien Jones and used with permission