Book Review – The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Book Review – The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

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Every now and then I get a sudden urge to go back and read one of the books of my childhood. There was a time when I used to read the Sophie books by Dick King-Smith to cheer myself up. If couldn’t sleep for any reason then I’d just whip one off the shelf. It’s that great mixture of an easy read, lovely story, and a huge wave of nostalgia that really makes it worth doing. Which is why I put off the many books on my TBR list so I could read this book this week. I don’t know why but I suddenly had a huge desire to go back to this one. I loved The Worst Witch when I was younger and I remember reading or listening to them all. I also loved the TV show.

Long before J.K Rowling opened the doors on her school for witchcraft and wizardry, we were lucky enough to be able to attend Cackle’s Academy for Witches. I loved this book when I was a child. It was wonderful being able to read about a girl who wasn’t perfect at everything. Mildred Hubble, the witch of the title, is the antithesis of all of those Disney princesses that we grew up watching. Here was a girl who made mistakes, was clumsy, and got into trouble all the time. It’s exactly the kind of thing that young girls need to read more of. Although, upon rereading, I wasn’t exactly convinced by Jill Murphy describing Maude as tubby. Fair play for getting realistic body images in there but I feel like the term “chubby” is problematic and reductive.

But let’s not get bogged down by semantics. The first book in The Worst Witch series introduces us to Mildred Hubble and her classmates during her first year at school. She gets herself into trouble immediately and is the kind of person who regularly finds herself on her way to the headmistress’ office. Over the course of the book, we see Mildred adopt a kitten, learn to fly a broom, and take part in a big Halloween celebration. All of them end up being fairly complicated for her. Can Mildred get through her school year without facing the wrath of her form teacher Miss Hardbroom?

For a first book in the series, this does a decent enough job of introducing us to this world. We get to know all of the characters that we need to and we get to see a small glimpse of Mildred’s world. It is the kind of quick and engaging read that will really appeal to young readers. The action moves quickly and time skips forward fairly dramatically. Something that will leave older readers feeling as though the plot is rather flimsy. Rather than one continuous narrative, it feels more like short stories stuck together. Not that it’s a problem, it just lacks a bit of cohesion.

The Worst Witch is a simple concept and Murphy approaches the story in a very simplistic way. The writing is to the point and we don’t get a great deal of world-building. Which, I guess is fine for younger readers. They don’t necessarily want to be bogged down with details about the soft furnishings when they can be reading about witches turning each other into pigs. It also means that Murphy finds the simplest way to deal with exposition, which can feel quite clunky and awkward. There is a point near the end when a character reminds someone of an important rule in the Witch’s code and they reply with “oh yes, I forgot all about that”. It’s not great writing in the grand scheme of things but I am a 32-year-old reading a book for children.

Ultimately, this a fun and engaging read. It has enough silliness in it to keep everyone amused but it also has a little edge to it. It’s not scary exactly but there is a modicum of peril involved to bring some drama and excitement. It certainly got me hooked when I was a kid. But it’s difficult to remove my mature tastes these days. There are better children’s books out there that have more depth to them. I had such fond memories of these books and going back did fill me with nostalgia. It also made me a bit sad that they couldn’t quite live up to my memories.

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