Sadly, on August 18th, 2021, the world lost the brilliant writer and illustrator Jill Murphy. She was only 72, which came as a surprise to many people who had never met her in person – she always glowed with youthful vitality. But, because she was so precociously talented, bursting onto the children’s literature scene when she was only in her early 20s, several generations of children grew up loving her books. These included the beloved Large Family series, the multiple award-winning The Last Noo-Noo, and, of course, the hilarious and heartwarming adventures of The Worst Witch.
The first three Worst Witch books were published when I was a child, and, like so many of my contemporaries, I read them over and over again. As an adult I was delighted to discover that not only had the books always remained in print – and phenomenally popular – but four more installments had been added over the years, each taking Mildred through another term at Miss Cackle’s Academy. In 2018, Jill finally published the final chapter in Mildred Hubble’s story, First Prize for the Worst Witch – a finale over 40 years in the making.
Jill began writing The Worst Witch when she was still one of the few working-class girls at a strict and somewhat snobbish Catholic grammar school. She excelled at writing and drawing, but the nuns who ran the school always made her feel that she didn’t really belong. As Jill sought refuge in her imagination, transforming the everyday joys and miseries of childhood into something magical, the nuns who taught and tormented her became Miss Hardbroom and her coven of teacher-witches. Jill’s school friends and rivals were transformed into Maud, Enid and Ethel. And Jill herself – a bright, well-intentioned but unlucky, accident-prone girl with a tendency to daydream – became Mildred Hubble.
Like her creator, Mildred is an outsider who is made to feel that she will never be good enough. Many people feel like that. Especially young people. Especially girls. Mildred Hubble has no magical destiny, no prophecies to fulfill, no sacred purpose. She is a magical hero for the rest of us – those who are just muddling through.
In Jill’s last few years, she was often battling illness in order to write, and (even more importantly to Jill) to draw. She always drew by hand and it was a cruel blow to Jill and all who loved her when she was forced to put down her pencil due to pain and weakness. I never truly believed that it would be for the last time. She had so much more to give, in every way. And she was always incredibly generous – with her talent, her time, her energy.
She was a remarkable human being who overcame the artificial limitations imposed by class and an unsympathetic educational system to produce work that reached the hearts of children and adults around the world. She always credited her mother with giving her the will to succeed and a belief in her own talents – but she also suffered from a lack of self-confidence which was often baffling, considering her enormous success. She had a very close and loving friendship with Quentin Blake but often felt intimidated around his ‘more cultured’ art school crowd. She never stopped identifying with her awkward schoolgirl heroine, Mildred, but she had a ferocious strength when it came to defending her own work and her own vision.
To me, the heart of the Worst Witch series lies in the deep connection between Jill and her material. Mildred’s misadventures are very funny, but there’s also something heartbreaking about an eleven-year-old girl who’s been constantly told that she’s the “worst”. I don’t think the messages we receive about ourselves in childhood can ever be entirely deleted, whether you’re an entitled Ethel or an underdog like Mildred. But the lesson of The Worst Witch is eternally optimistic. Kindness, loyalty, and bravery will be rewarded in the end – as long as you never give up.
In the 1970s, children’s book publishers worried that a story about a school for witches would be ‘too scary’ for their readers. Jill knew they were wrong. Mildred Hubble kicked open doors for Harry Potter to fly through.
Jill took a keen interest in adaptations of her work and I was deeply privileged to work with her on the 2017 BBC series of The Worst Witch and on the Olivier-award-winning stage play based on the book. She adored seeing Mildred brought to life in the theatre and loved talking to the actors and creative team about the artistry involved. She was always deeply interested in everything and everyone. I’m sure many people have talked about how she would write personally to fans and draw pictures for them for the many decades of her career; she was also delighted to meet young fans, sign books, and pose for pictures.
Jill always exuded humility, as if she was surprised that anyone would be interested in her. It wasn’t the faux-self-deprecation which is so common in showbiz; it struck me as something deeper, perhaps rooted in the Catholic schooling which inspired The Worst Witch. Talking to Jill was always fascinating. Putting the pieces together allowed me to trace the roots of all her beloved characters. She joked that her mother called her The Ancient Mariner because of her tendency to tell long stories. But people wanted to listen. I can hear her voice now, surprised but delighted that people are making a fuss about her. I hope people write and talk about Jill for a long, long time. It’s definitely what she would have wanted.
Jill’s life and work champions the Mildred Hubble in all of us. May we all be inspired and encouraged – and never let anybody tell us we’ll never be good enough.