'I didn’t know that women were allowed to be writers': Jill Murphy on the magic of making your own worlds and why Mildred Hubble is just like her
Published on: 06 September 2018 Author: Anna McKerrow
A long-standing fan of The Worst Witch, Anna McKerrow was over the moon (pun intended) to catch up with the inimitable writer and illustrator and talk about creativity, friendship and illustration.
Let’s start right at the beginning: What inspired you to write The Worst Witch?
When I was a little girl, I didn’t know that women could write or illustrate books. All we were expected to do was get married and have babies, so I never grew up knowing about how books are made in the same way as children do now.
I loved books and I was an early reader – I was reading the newspaper by the time I was three – but I thought that books were all about things that had actually happened. I didn’t know that the person who had written them wasn’t always the same one that had done the pictures – all that.
Despite it not being the done thing for women to have a career at that time, I had a burning ambition to create a story. I wanted to write a book that would site between The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and The Secret Garden on the shelf. I thought they were wonderful.
My mum ran a library and my dad was very artistic; they met during the war. When they got married, Mum stayed at home with me, and as an unusually talented child (very literate, very keen on drawing), I was the perfect subject for her to tell stories to and share her love of books with. She was very ambitious, and I got that from her, as well as my dad’s drawing ability.
I talk about being lucky in my career, and having my mum and dad as parents was lucky for me because they encouraged me so much and gave me their talents. But I also think, as I heard someone else say in an interview recently, when you’re successful it’s about what you do with the little bits of luck you get along the way. They’re like stepping stones – you go from one to another, and each one takes you a little bit further along the way to something successful, as long as you keep trying and keep working at it.
At an early age, I started making my own books, drawing on the right, doing the writing on the left, and stapling them together. The first one was called The Lonely House, and all my friends loved it so much that I wrote a sequel, even though I didn’t know what a sequel was then!
The Worst Witch came about from a number of things really, but the one moment I always think of is when my two friends and I got caught in the rain. The school I went to had a uniform like the one in The Worst Witch – the hat had that same band around it that the witches' ones have. My mum opened the door to us and said ‘You look like the three witches caught in the rain,’ and in that moment, I remember imagining that our school hats grew to have points like witches’ hats.
So I started thinking about my school – how witches might make potions in the science labs, for instance, and all that type of thing, and I started making up this school for witches based on my own world.
Originally, I imagined that Miss Cackle, the headmistress, might be more fond of dogs than cats, but then when I tried drawing dogs sitting at the end of broomsticks, it didn’t work at all! So I decided that the trainee witches should have black cats, and Mildred would have a tabby one because she gets everything wrong.
Everything that I experienced went into the book. When we went on holiday, I found a fantastic castle while I was out playing, and I drew witches flying out of it – that went into the book as an illustration. It was like everything I experienced at that young age was filling a filing cabinet inside me, making up the book I was meant to write.
When I’d finished writing the story, I sent it off to three different publishers, all of whom said children wouldn’t like it – witches were too scary. So I gave up on it for a while. I’d left art school and was in Africa when I went to a publishers party at Allison and Busby. I got chatting with someone there and they said they were thinking of starting a children’s list, and when they read The Worst Witch, it was just what they’d been looking for.
They published 5,000 copies at first and sold out almost straightaway, even without any promotion. I started getting letters from children asking for the next one, so I wrote that, and then I wrote and illustrated Peace at Last, which went up for the Kate Greenaway award, I suddenly realised I had a career.
I realised that I was making books that mums and children liked, which was a good thing. I wanted to make something that was short and snappy with nice bits thrown in for the parents, which was why I put in the bit at the end where Mr Bear gets a tax bill. I’d just got mine at the time.
Adults read those picture books so many times that they need to appeal to parents as well as children.
Was there anyone in particular that inspired you in writing and illustrating?
One of my main inspirations for drawing was Pauline Baynes, the illustrator of the Chronicles of Narnia. She was my heroine – without her influence, my books wouldn’t have been what they are. I spent ages observing those illustrations and copying them when I was little.
When I was making picture books, I did a book called The Last Noo-Noo, which is about a little monster that can’t give up a dummy. Amazingly and completely out of the blue, Pauline wrote me a fan letter – she completely loved it and had bought it for all her nephews and nieces! I was so happy about that. I spent about three years composing a letter back to her!
Mildred is a trier, even though she’s not naturally gifted when it comes to witchcraft. Why was it important that she be like that – why not make a book about a perfect witch?
She’s based on me! And in my life, plenty things have gone wrong but some things have gone spectacularly right too. I left art school – I hated being away from home. Art school wasn’t great for me. I thought there would be a magical social life and lots of parties but that didn’t happen.
I felt so out of place in Chelsea in the 60s, which is where I did part of my foundation degree. I was determined to move away from home and have this amazing art school life but I remember that first day going home to a horrible bedsit – there was no one to say hello or ask about your day. I stuck it out and got into Camberwell art school, but I wasn’t that happy there either – I was depressed, in retrospect. So I always felt for young people who were having a bad time and at school away from home.
But good things also came out of the blue – the actress Anna Massey arranged for the book to be read on Jackanory and that led to more successes. My life was quite up and down, but there were these steps that helped me. Mildred keeps trying, and in the end she gets to be Head Girl, despite all the messy bits of her story!
What were your favourite books as a child?
Well, of course, there were my two favourites, The Secret Garden and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I also liked Enid Blyton’s stories; though, in retrospect, the children were quite horrible to each other! I’m not crazy about Blyton now but she knew how to keep you on the edge of your seat!
There was a horrible story in a collection I had about Mother Wrinkle, who used to scrape the wrinkles off the fairies’ faces. So vile, really, but I loved it at the time. My mother hated that book and tried to give it away at the jumble sale every year but I used to buy it back!
I loved comics and books with pictures too, and I was so disappointed when I went to big school that the books didn’t have pictures in them anymore. I also liked T H White’s The Sword in the Stone. Nowadays I like Jacqueline Wilson’s books very much. She’s great at writing stories with great characters and plots – children are always desperate to know what happens next. You’ve got to write with that in mind.
What message would you give to children (and parents) about reading, writing and drawing?
Children need encouragement to be creative and to know that they don’t need a computer to make their work perfect.
When I visit schools, I show children my original stapled-together books which are in pencil – I show them I didn’t always do perfect drawings. It’s inspiring for them to know that if they keep going, they’ll get better, and that it’s OK to be a bit scribbly, to make things with your hands.
I dreamed of making a book that would sit between The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and The Secret Garden on the shelf, and now I’ve got eight books in the Worst Witch series that sit between them. Every now and then, I give them a little stroke and think "I did that". I want children to know that they can do it too.
First Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy, a new book in the Worst Witch series, is out now.