In this month's Inspirations, Elizabeth Frattaroli pays tribute to the marvellous writing and illustration of Jill Murphy.

As a child I always had my head buried in a book, so when I was asked to write about a writer who has influenced me, a host of favourite childhood books immediately sprung to mind. Would it be firm favourites, The Magic Faraway Tree or Malory Towers and St Clare’s by Enid Blyton, or Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, or maybe even The Hardy Boys books, which I devoured as a dedicated, card-carrying* tomboy, and which led on to my love of Agatha Christie as a young teenager? (*Literally – I was a member of the Warlord Comic’s Secret Agent Club, with my own identity card and everything!)


But then I thought about Jill Murphy and remembered how much I had loved Mildred Hubble, Maud and Tabby, and how, years later, my daughter had also raced through the series, often staying up late to finish ‘just one more chapter’. To be able to share that with her was brilliant and brought me right back to being that slightly awkward bookworm of my youth, where the world of fiction was safe and comforting and magical. And often preferable to my real life school days. It was like being with old friends.


The Worst Witch series, reprinted by Puffin Books

 I remember reading an article where she was interviewed and said that the inspiration for The Worst Witch was her own strict convent school education, and that she started writing it in her school book when she was 14, rewriting it at 18 and sending it off to three publishers in 1969. Incredibly, it was rejected as being ‘too frightening for children because it was about a school for witches’, so it was put in a drawer until independent publisher, Allison & Busby, took it on and published it in 1974. It has since been adapted for TV (three separate series and a TV film) and stage, with the latest TV adaptation being in 2017, which was again a perfect opportunity to revisit Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches with my then 9-year-old daughter.


Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches stood at the top of a high mountain surrounded by a pine forest. It looked more like a prison than a school, with its gloomy grey walls and turrets. Sometimes you could see the pupils on their broomsticks flitting like bats above the playground wall, but usually the place was half hidden in mist, so that if you had glanced up at the mountain you would probably not have noticed the building was there at all.


Illustration from the front of The Worst Witch books by Puffin Books

But of course, Jill Murphy bridged the generations in other ways too, creating picture books that spoke to the adults reading them as much as the children being read to. What busy parent wouldn’t relate to the quest for a moments peace and quiet? Her large family of elephants stories came on the back of the success of her first picture book, Peace at Last, about a daddy bear who couldn’t sleep, which was nominated for the Kate Greenaway award. Many other now classic picture books followed.


Five Minutes’ Peace by Jill Murphy, Walker Books

She always came across as a warm and highly creative person. This was highlighted to my daughter in a very personal way, when she received the most gorgeously chatty letter from her after writing to tell her how much she loved her books, and Tabby especially (we had just brought our own kittens home and so I think she bonded extra hard with Mildred’s little white-pawed tabby cat).


Letter from Jill received by my daughter

So, I guess Jill Murphy has inspired me in two ways. The first is to try and write enduring stories that will make children want to stay up late and read under their covers when they’re supposed to be sleeping; and the second is to always remember why we are doing this and who we are writing for. If I’m ever lucky enough to have readers write to me after enjoying one of my books, I will absolutely get back to them and tell them how excited I am that they’ve reached out to me. What a privilege that would be. (Although, sadly, I can’t promise any matching illustrations as my drawing skills are somewhat lacking).


Thank you, Jill, for inspiring generations of children, and for taking the time to engage with your readers and make their lives that little bit more special. Although we lost you in August 2021, what a legacy you left behind!


 Elizabeth Frattaroli is a regular contributor to Words & Pictures. You can find her on Twitter as @ELIZFRAT.

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