Interview: Jill Murphy on the Worst Witch

By Emma Gibbs

Jill Murphy is best known for The Worst Witch stories that follow the misadventures of Mildred Hubble at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. The books were an instant success when they were first released 40 years ago and still remain hugely popular today. Murphy, an author and illustrator, went on to win the 1995 Smarties Book Prize in the 0-5 years category for her story, The Last Noo-noo. She is also famous for The Large Family picture books. She currently lives in Cornwall.

Ahead of The North Cornwall Book Festival, which Murphy will be attending for a children’s workshop on the 26th October, I talked to Jill to discuss her life as a writer…

Why did you decide to write children’s fiction?

“I have always done it, and could read and write from a very early age,” she said. “There was really no alternative.”

I asked about the incredible realisation that she could both write and draw well at such a young age. She “didn’t see it as a talent,” she said, but as a way to entertain herself. And as for her artistry skills, she explained she was often told she could “draw her way out of trouble” in school. 

Why did you decide to write about witches?

“I always knew it was a fantastic idea because it was so unusual,” she said.

But it wasn’t witches that Murphy was drawn to at first, but the idea of making a school story. The idea of a school for witches came later when she returned home with a couple of friends in their school uniform and her mother remarked that they looked like “the three witches.”

It is easy to forget that The Worst Witch was ahead of its time. It featured a storyline that made publication difficult, as witchcraft was considered ‘too scary’ for children. However, for the majority of us who remember reading The Worst Witch books they will always be remembered as comparably light and charming – and for me the books certainly kindled a life-long love of reading.

What books did you enjoy reading as a child?

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis was a book that Murphy remembers thoroughly enjoyed reading, not just for its magical story but for the illustrations by Pauline Baynes. That was what initially drew her to The Chronicles of Narnia. Murphy remembers wanting one day to see a book she had written sitting next to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on her bookshelf.

What advice would you give to young writers?

“Try and write about what you know,” Murphy said. The author has made no secret of the fact that she was the inspiration for Mildred Hubble. She added that it’s important “not to lose heart” with your writing.

What does the future hold for The Worst Witch?

Murphy confirmed that she is working on the eight and final instalment of The Worst Witch series, with the working title First Prize for the Worst Witch. Mildred Hubble “can’t keep being the worst witch because otherwise she’ll become the best witch,” she added.

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