THE WORST WITCH'S JILL MURPHY
PUBLISHED: 10:32 26 April 2016 | UPDATED: 12:41 30 August 2017
Long before Harry Potter there was Mildred Hubble... We catch up with the Worst Witch creator Jill Murphy at her home in St Mabyn
Long before Harry Potter there was Mildred Hubble, the not-so-promising witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. Gareth Rees caught up with The Worst Witch creator Jill Murphy at her home in St Mabyn
Jill’s mother is a librarian, crazy about books. Her father works in an aircraft factory, but he loves to draw. He draws on the edges of newspapers, on brown paper bags, even on the paper wrapped round Jill’s sandwiches. Jill, although she is only six years old, is already an author. She’s self-published, for now. But everyone has to start somewhere, don’t they?When I grew up I realised that my parents’ hidden talents had unwittingly given me an unusual drive to tell stories and illustrate them,’ says Jill Murphy, now 66 and the fêted author and illustrator of best-selling children’s books including The Worst Witch and Large Family series.
Murphy, grew up in London but now lives in St Mabyn, near Wadebridge, still has many of those stories that she stapled together to create her first books in the mid-1950s. I used to sit in my bedroom and work on them after school,’ she remembers. I always showed them to my mum first and then to my school friends. If my school friends liked them, I would write a sequel, although in those days I didn’t even know what a sequel was. A friend would tell me that they would like another story, so I wrote a second one. For example, The Lonely House was the first book when I was six and I wrote The Further Adventure of The Lonely House a year later. Sometimes I would write a newspaper and do my own book reviews.’
It wasn’t only Murphy’s mum and dad who inspired those early efforts. Her aunt – her mother’s sister – would visit the family home every weekend, bringing with her a Puffin book as a treat for her niece. The aspiring author also loved the Rupert Bear annuals she received as gifts at Christmas, Enid Blyton’s books and The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson-Burnett. But her favourites were C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, illustrated by Pauline Baynes. Many years later I actually had a fan letter from Pauline Baynes, who was by then very elderly, telling me that she thought I was a talented writer and illustrator and she had bought several if my picture books for her great nieces and nephews,’ she says. This has been the highlight of my career so far.’
Murphy dreamed of following in the footsteps of Blyton and Baynes, but although looking back at her auspicious start it might seem to have been fated, she didn’t think she would be able to become a full-time children’s author. When I was a child, about 58 years ago now, girls were not really expected to have a career,’ she says. I just wrote and drew for the sheer joy of it and made the stories into books so they would look nice and neat.’ Murphy recalls standing her creations on the shelf next to the Narnia books and trying to imagine how lovely it would be to see my own books in the library’.
Murphy attended what is now the Ursuline High School, in Wimbledon, south west London, which in the early 1960s was a convent grammar school, which she remembers as very strict’ with very high standards’ where pupils were taught by nuns veiled from head to foot’. It would later provide the inspiration for The Worst Witch. Then came short and pretty miserable stints at Chelsea Art School and Croydon Art School, where her illustrations were considered twee’, before she enrolled on a degree course at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (now Camberwell College of Arts). There were still no illustration courses so I was accepted onto the graphic design course, which was not of any interest to me at all as I was still drawing my pictures of squirrels having picnics and witches zooming around treetops.’ She left after two terms.
Murphy became a nanny. She worked in a children’s home. And she travelled. Then her first book was published. The Worst Witch was published 42 years ago, in 1974. It was the best idea I ever had and I’m still very proud of it,’ she says.
Mildred Hubble’s struggles at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches continued in The Worst Witch Strikes Again and throughout five subsequent books - the most recent is 2013’s The Worst Witch and The Wishing Star. Millions of copies of The Worst Witch books have been sold, and the series has been adapted for television more than once.
Murphy has also enjoyed success with The Large Family, a series of 11 picture books featuring a family of elephants, which began with Five Minutes’ Peace, published 30 years ago, in 1986. The Large Family has also been adapted for television.
Although Murphy struggles with the temptation to forgo work to play on the beach with her new puppy or frequent the cafés of Padstow with her friends, she says that living in Cornwall keeps her on her toes creatively, and her desire to entertain her readers results in sudden bursts’ of frenetic activity. She has just finished writing and illustrating Meltdown, a book about a rabbit going bonkers in a supermarket trolley when she’s not allowed to eat a cake that they have bought for tea’, which Murphy has caused those she has shared it with to collapse laughing. It is due in autumn 2016. Then First Prize for the Worst Witch, the eighth book in The Worst Witch series will be published in early 2017.
It feels wonderful that children have really enjoyed my books for so long,’ says Murphy. It was what I dreamed of as a little girl, not knowing quite how I would ever do it and, a bit like Mildred, I got there in the end although everything seemed stacked against me in the early days.’