Jill Murphy’s sad passing back in August 2021 sent shockwaves through the world of children’s books. Most well-known for her iconic series The Worst Witch, it was in 1974 that Jill first introduced us to Mildred Hubble, the clumsy but always well-intentioned witch of Miss Cackle’s Academy. Although initially rejected by a few publishers who deemed a story about a school of witches "too frightening", The Worst Witch was an instant success and resulted in an eight-book series – as well as TV, film, and theatre adaptations. Jill also wrote and illustrated a whole host of picture books including the award-winning Large Family series.
Jill has left a big hole in the heart of the children’s book world, but she has also left behind a magical legacy. So, we asked a handful of fans, colleagues, and fellow author-illustrators to share their thoughts about Jill and what they love the most about all her wonderful books and characters.
Pamela Todd, Jill’s friend and agent
Jill was a born storyteller. And one of my favourites is how a chance remark from her mum helped lift and transform the stories she’d been scribbling away in her school rough book into something original and special. ‘Look at you,’ Reeney said, opening the door one day to Jill and two rain-bedraggled school friends, in their dark convent school uniforms, ‘you look like three witches.’ And so, the idea of setting her stories in an academy for witches was born. She was 14, but had been writing, illustrating, and stapling her own books together since she was six, carefully writing the title and her name on the cover of each. One of Jill’s earliest memories was of drawing on the brown paper grocers’ bags Reeney – her great champion – ironed flat for her, and by the time Jill left primary school she had a library of 190 little books, safely stored in her knitting bag.
I first met Jill 40 years ago when, as the youngest agent in town, I joined the oldest agency and found her – unsurprisingly – already on their books. That’s when I first met her, but not when I first saw her. That was earlier. I was living in South End Green in Hampstead, above an art shop, and she nearby in a mansion block and I’d see her around, a striking figure, always beautiful, but back then, arrestingly lovely, tall, and slender with these wings of straight black hair, parted down the centre. She looked like someone who was someone, and she was. I became her agent, and we became friends, good mates, giggling about the ‘elderly persons of 32’ we had dealings with. We went to Bologna together, to the children’s book fair, and made a deal that enabled her to buy her first home. We had our kids around the same time. We were in each other’s lives, inextricably. Forever and always, she would sign off her texts. It’s impossible not to miss her.
By her own admission she’d ‘bumped along the bottom’ at school – a strict Ursuline convent – where the nuns in their wimples seemed to materialise (just like Miss Hardbroom) at the end of long corridors at the very moment she was saying something awful or unwise about them. She’d failed her 11 plus but been given an interview on the strength of her obvious talent for art and English and, although she may not have shone at science or left with many formal qualifications, school gave her something more useful. It gave her copy. It was there, as a teenager, that she set and wrote The Worst Witch, changing the chemistry room into the potions lab, lifting the characters from life, turning her best friends into Maud Spellbody and Enid Nightshade, the school bully into Ethel Hallow and, of course, herself into Mildred Hubble, the accident-prone worst witch of the title: well-meaning, good-hearted, hopeless.
At 17, she sent the book off to a couple of publishers who turned it down, claiming that children might find the idea of a school for witches too frightening. ‘They were wrong about that, weren’t they?’ she liked to say. A few years later she tried ‘one last time' and struck lucky when a bold third publisher took The Worst Witch up, published it enthusiastically, and sold the first printing out in two months. Penguin published it in paperback and the rest is history. Eight books in the series, scores of foreign publishers, sales in the millions. In the intervening years, the books have repeatedly been adapted for film, stage, and two highly successful TV series, the first featuring the young Felicity Jones as Ethel Hallow, the second Bella Ramsay as Mildred Hubble, with a host of starry names playing the teachers. And then, the cherry on the cake, last year the latest excellent and exuberant stage version of The Worst Witch won the coveted Olivier Award. Above her drawing desk was pinned a gloriously happy picture of the (adult) cast of the musical on the stage at the Vaudeville Theatre with the visiting (young adult) cast of the CBBC series and Jill, glowing, at the centre.
The enduring appeal of all her books (for alongside The Worst Witch she wrote and illustrated warm, witty, prize-winning picture books for younger children featuring the well-loved Large and Bear families) lies in their message. Friendship counts for much. Bullies have backstories. Anything is possible. Don’t be put off, don’t be knocked back. There's magic in the everyday and imagination can transform ordinary lives. She was passionate about grammar and unapologetic about introducing her readers to new vocabulary. She had every faith in them, and that faith was often rewarded. She loved meeting her young readers and wrote long, often illustrated replies to their letters.
Her wonderfully entertaining conversation was peppered with Mildred-like phrases. Sentences would begin ‘to my absolute joy’ or ‘to my utter horror’. At her mesmerising, unstoppable best, she could hold a room in thrall. We spoke all the time and she’d often end one of her marathon phone calls with ‘well, end of part one.’ I feel so sad that I’ll never now hear part two.
She famously said that she wanted to make a book good enough to sit on the shelf between The Secret Garden and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and when Puffin brought out the gorgeous full-colour anniversary edition of The Worst Witch in 2014 she really felt she’d achieved that ambition, and, of course, with eight books in the series, she leaves a wonderful legacy for generations of readers to come.
Mabel, 9 years old, big fan of The Worst Witch
I have read all the Worst Witch books twice and I am going to read them all again. My favourite one is The Worst Witch Strikes Again as it is the most exciting one, but I love them all as they are so imaginative. I like Mildred best because she’s very funny. The best thing about the books is having really good pictures of all the characters!
Chris Riddell, illustrator and author of The Ottoline and Goth Girl books
I met Jill Murphy most often at the wonderful parties thrown by Walker Books – and I mean thrown. They were exuberant joyful occasions and I felt honoured and special to be invited. But my abiding memory of Jill was meeting her for the first time at the offices of Walker Books. I was a young illustrator just getting started and I was struck by Jill’s friendly and warm personality. Full of warmth and fun, she took time to chat and talk about illustrating and books.
Over the years I encountered that warmth and fun in the pages of her books which I read to my children. Our particular favourite was Five Minutes' Peace with its loving insight into the often-chaotic dynamics of family life. Jill gave us Mrs. Large balancing that cup of tea on her tummy and we will always love and remember her for that.
Edie, 10 years old, long-time fan of The Worst Witch series
My favourite Jill Murphy character is Enid Nightshade because she pushes Mildred and Maud out of their comfort zones – and even though it's a little bit naughty, they're still friends and it's funny! The Worst Witch Strikes Again is my favourite of her books because I enjoyed hearing about the summer uniform and it's when Enid first arrives at school. Mildred chases Enid's monkey because she doesn't want to get Enid in trouble – because Mildred is kind. It's really funny.
The book I would recommend in particular is the second one (The Worst Witch Strikes Again) but it's important to read all of them as a series. All of the Worst Witch stories are very funny, and Mildred is a great character. I loved reading them when I was younger. They're full of adventure and magic. It's all funny – even the teachers. Mildred isn't very good at magic, but she kept trying. She has lots of friends and I loved reading about them together.
Helen Levene, Jill's long-time editor at Penguin Random House
Working with Jill Murphy on her Worst Witch books was an absolute privilege and the most fun I have ever had in my publishing career. I was in awe – not only was Jill the author of the original boarding-school-for-witches stories, she was also the illustrator of what has become a highly successful and much-loved series.
So, what was Jill’s writing process? Well, first, we would bat story ideas back and forth in numerous long conversations on the phone, during which we would go on to random subjects such as the latest episode of Mad Men, crazy politicians, or what to have for supper. Then Jill would invite me to stay in her lovely home in Cornwall for a week or more, to begin the writing process – which couldn’t possibly be achieved without plenty of tea and toast in her cosy kitchen, walks on the beach, and breakfasts at the café across the harbour… (Such hard work…) Although it might have seemed as though nothing was being done, Jill was constantly at work, always developing the storyline, scribbling down passages of dialogue, refining her characters until she felt ready to write a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, followed by a complete first draft and then a final manuscript.
However, ‘final’ was not a word in Jill’s vocabulary. She was an absolute perfectionist and every paragraph, every sentence, and every bit of punctuation was pored over, as her long-term copy-editorial manager Wendy Shakespeare will no doubt testify! That said, though, Jill’s absolute favourite part of the Worst Witch journey was the illustrations. Once the galley pages were sent to her, Jill would draw detailed pencil roughs into carefully arranged page layouts, which involved painstakingly cutting out lines of text and gluing them in place around her sketches to mimic how each page should look. During this part of the process, Jill would be gently guided by Jacqui McDonough – her art director, whom she trusted implicitly – before she would go over them in ink. In exquisite and meticulous detail – from the very tip of Mildred’s hat to every single hair of Tabby’s whiskers – each illustration was drawn and re-drawn until it was exactly right. However, like the words, Jill could always see something that could be improved!
In her eighth and last book in the series, First Prize for the Worst Witch, Jill allowed her hapless hero Mildred Hubble (who is very much based on herself) to fulfil her dream of no longer being the worst witch in Miss Cackle’s Academy. In so doing, I like to think that Jill was finally allowing herself to be proud of her remarkable achievements as an author and illustrator. She had reached the top, just like Mildred. My Worst Witch years have been a chapter of my life that I am very sad to finish, and I shall miss the one-and-only Jill Murphy more than I can say.
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Image: Alex Francis / Photo: Nic Knight / Illustration: Jill Murphy