Jill Murphy, 64, is a writer and illustrator from London who is best known for her iconic series of books about witch-in-training Mildred Hubble and her life at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. The mum-of-one has also created a host of much-loved picture books, including the award-winning Peace At Last, and a series about Mr and Mrs Large and their elephant family. Her seventh book in The Worst Witch series, which has sold five million copies worldwide, is out now.
The Worst Witch And The Wishing Star is your first book in the series for six years. How does it feel to return to Mildred – and to still be writing about her?
Writing a book is very similar to having a baby. When you are pregnant, it seems to go on forever and you keep wondering about it. And once the child is born, you can’t believe it is anything to do with you!
I still find seeing the finished book terribly exciting. You can’t believe you did it, the way it all fits together. I always see a mistake in the first book though, no matter how careful I’ve been. Maybe your readers can spot the mistake in this one! I won’t give it away, but I will say that Mildred is wearing an article of clothing in the story which I didn’t draw.
How does the process of creating The Worst Witch books compare to your picture books?
The Worst Witch is very special to me. It is really the story of my school days, which were a trying time. Mildred starts at a disadvantage and I was the candidate least likely to succeed. I got sent to a school that was very academic. I was very good at drawing and telling stories, but when it got to chemistry, I was terrible. But somehow I got there in the end.
Physically, I was tall and lanky like her, and the teachers at Miss Cackle’s Academy are inspired by my school, too. Miss Hardbroom was a combination of the nuns, dressed all in black. And I got the idea of witches because when I came home from school with my two friends one day and we were soaked through, my mum said, “You look like the three witches”. All I had to do was make our hats pointy! But I wanted to make it like a real school, one that you could go to, if you could find it.
Did you dream of writing books for a career?
I never realised it could be a job! It just happened that since I was age six, I began making little books, illustrated and stapled together. I even had a lending library and my friends would borrow them. If one did well, I’d make another with the same characters. I didn’t realise it was a sequel.
It was as natural as breathing, but never about a career. It’s like when Tom Daley found he could dive and swim like a fish, and loved it. If it is something that comes so naturally, it is rather lovely. And you get quite skilled because you like to practice all the time. By the time I was 11, I’d written 90 books. You can see my handwriting is getting better, as are my drawings. I still have all of them – I often show them to children when I visit schools.
Illustration was not invented at college in those days. When people said I should go to art school, there was no course. I went through two art colleges and no-one knew I was doing stories. I kept them at home like some awful secret.
So how did the book get published?
I wrote The Worst Witch when I was 18. I have still got the rejection letters saying it would frighten children! But then a few years later, I had a piece of luck. The person who typed my manuscript mentioned it to a new publishing house. At the time I was living in Ghana and the lady in charge was Ghanian, so it caught their interest. Then once it came out, Puffin called up. It was just unbelievable.
The Worst Witch turns 40 next year. Is it hard to keep the books relevant to a modern audience?
I am very cheered that kids still read Mildred and they don’t expect her to be any different. They don’t want her to use the internet and go to a roller disco. I can remember that I used to like Rupert the Bear and to my absolute horror, one Christmas, his grandmother knitted him a different colour scarf. Children like what they know. Her success has been because she is the same.
With the proliferation of kindles and iPads, do you worry about children no longer picking up books?
I’ve just got my first iPad and it makes you very insular. You don’t go out and share your book with people. No one knows what you are reading – it’s very secretive. I read about a seven-year-old who ran up a £300 bill on her father’s iPad. I wondered why on Earth she had access to his credit card details? My son is 23 and he doesn’t.
I was a strict mum. When all his friends had these computers and he was dead keen, I said no. I wanted him to experience things – play football, learn an instrument. Now as an adult he is in a band, he surfs. I got him an Xbox for his 20th birthday but he just plays a bit of FIFA.
But it would be harder to stick to that now. The pressure is too extreme and they get given an iPad at school. You can’t opt out. I think it’s a shame – they don’t cut things with scissors. They miss those skills.
There was a TV series of The Worst Witch about 15 years ago but never a film. Why was that?
At one point, Walt Disney offered for it to become a cartoon, but would not give reassurance as to what the drawings of Mildred would look like. And they could have sat on it for a long time and I would not have been able to write any more books. The drawings and stories are so completely bound up for me, it was too big a risk. Even on the TV series, I found it hard.
Are you planning to write any more Worst Witch books?
I can only really do one more about her now. She has become quite a success in her own right and can’t stay at school forever. But I am doing the drawings for a special gift edition for the 40th anniversary with colour images. When I did the first one, we had no idea how successful it would be. I asked to do colour pictures but they said it had to be black and white, and in cross hatching with ink. It meant I had to write in black and white – I only mentioned the colour of the badges and sashes.
Were there any authors or illustrators you admired or who inspired your work?
Pauline Baynes, who illustrated CS Lewis and Tolkein’s books, was my absolute hero. I used to copy her pictures all the time. And I had a wonderful experience with her actually because, years later, when I did Mother Knows Best, Pauline wrote me a fan letter! I nearly died with delight. I wrote back hysterical with joy to tell her she was one of my favourites.
If you could do magic, what power would you like to have?
I’d make myself invisible. Oh, perhaps not that as the only reason would be to sneak around and find out what other people are saying about you! It would have to be flying. I’d very much like to be able to do that.
>> The Worst Witch And The Wishing Star by Jill Murphy (£9.99, Puffin Hardback) is out now. Buy it here