More than two decades before a certain boy wizard ditched his cupboard at 4 Privet Drive for the halls of Hogwarts, readers were introduced to clumsy but sweet-natured Mildred Hubble in the 1974 kidlit classic The Worst Witch.
If the Boy Who Lived had wanted a preview of what awaited him at wizard school, he needn’t have looked any further than Mildred’s exploits at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. Over the course of eight books (four of which were published before UK booksellers unpacked their first shipments of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in June 1997), Mildred embarked on a series of misadventures with two steadfast friends; fended off sabotage attempts from an elitist rival student who hated her for no readily apparent reason; and outwitted an evil witch with a personal grudge against the school’s benevolent headmistress—all while learning the finer points of invisibility spells, magic potions, and broomstick aerodynamics.
Forty-seven years after The Worst Witch debuted (there’s no wrong time to celebrate a book), here are a few things you might not know about author-illustrator Jill Murphy and her most famous creation.
1. The Worst Witch author Jill Murphy has been writing books since she was 6 years old.
Murphy developed a love of reading and writing at an early age thanks to her mother, a former librarian who was, in Murphy’s words, “mad about books.” By the time Murphy was 11 years old, she had written and illustrated more than 90 small, hand-stapled books. She still has all of them and often takes them with her on school visits to show kids that art can be messy and imperfect.
2. Jill Murphy started writing The Worst Witch when she was 14, and “wrote it properly” when she was only 18—after being kicked out of art school.
According to a 2014 interview with The Telegraph, Mildred Hubble began to take shape while Murphy was in grammar school. She brought two friends home for tea one rainy day, and when Murphy’s mother opened the door to the three of them in their drenched school uniforms, she told them they looked like witches. Murphy’s thoughts quickly turned to a school for witches, and she soon had her first drawings of Mildred.
Murphy didn’t get around to finishing the manuscript that would become The Worst Witch until a few years later, after she’d been, in her own words, “thrown out” of the Chelsea School of Art. Uncertain about her future, she wrote The Worst Witch “in an attempt to stop going barmy.”
3. The Worst Witch's Mildred Hubble was originally a winged, pink-frocked fairy.
In 2019, Murphy told The Daily Telegraph that Mildred was originally meant to be a fairy who somehow got herself enrolled in a school for witches. Mildred’s pointy ears didn’t give her away but her wings surely would have, so she took pains to conceal them from her instructors. When she finally decided she liked her wings and didn’t want to hide them anymore, this early version of Mildred flew off to fairy school, where she traded her witch’s robes for a pink fairy frock.
4. Publishers rejected The Worst Witch because they thought it would scare children.
Murphy sent The Worst Witch to three publishers in 1969, only to have all three return it with a rejection letter. Collins (later of HarperCollins fame) even went as far as telling her that a book about a kid who attends a school for witches would be too frightening for young readers.
On that note, Murphy has carefully avoided discussing similarities between The Worst Witch and a certain kid-wizard series that hit bookstores 23 years later, though she has said that some kind of acknowledgement would be appreciated.
5. The Worst Witch was originally published by Britain's first Black woman publisher.
Murphy’s fortunes changed a few years after that initial round of rejections, thanks to a chance meeting and a happy coincidence. By the time she was 23 years old, Murphy had shelved her manuscript and moved to Ghana with her first husband. Back in London, a friend attended a party and ran into Margaret Busby, co-founder of an independent publishing house called Allison and Busby and the UK’s first Black woman publisher. Busby—who happened to be from Ghana—was thinking of taking on children’s books, and her interest was piqued by Murphy’s friend’s description of The Worst Witch. Busby phoned Murphy as soon as the latter returned to England, and Murphy immediately hopped on her bicycle and hand-delivered her manuscript to the publisher’s Soho office. The imprint quickly accepted the book for publication, offering Murphy an advance of £150—the equivalent of roughly $2200 in today’s U.S. currency.
Allison and Busby were rewarded for their faith in Murphy’s book; The Worst Witch was an instant success, selling out its initial 5000-copy print run in just two months.
6. The Worst Witch has inspired a television movie, four TV series, and a stage play.
The first adaptation came in 1986 with a made-for-television movie. A 40-episide British-Canadian TV series premiered 12 years later in October 1998 and ran until 2001, when it was succeeded by a short-lived and somewhat darker sequel called Weirdsister College. The New Worst Witch came four years later and returned to Miss Cackle’s Academy, this time centering on Mildred’s younger cousin, Hettie.
The franchise got a big-budget reboot in 2017 with a Netflix series that wrapped its fourth season in 2020. Like so many international productions, the show is currently in limbo as Europe finds its way through the pandemic, and a fifth season has not yet been announced. The show’s first-season lead writer, Emma Reeves, adapted Murphy’s first two books for a well-reviewed stage play that toured the UK in 2019.
But about that first TV movie…
7. Jill Murphy was sorely disappointed with the Worst Witch TV movie, but liked the series that followed.
Helmed by Vampire Circus director Robert Young, the 1986 made-for-television adaptation of The Worst Witch came to the U.S. via HBO and, thanks to annual Halloween airings, racked up a loyal fan base—but that group pointedly does not include the property’s creator. In a 2014 interview with The Telegraph, Murphy called the film “terribly disappointing,” citing “an appalling script” and “weak special effects.”
It’s hard to argue with Murphy on at least one of those points, but The Worst Witch has its charms, including a starring turn by Fairuza Balk, fresh from her role as Dorothy in Return to Oz, and dual performances by The Facts of Life’s Charlotte Rae as school headmistress Miss Cackle and her evil twin, Agatha. But the highlight of the movie is undoubtedly Tim Curry’s wild performance of the song “Anything Can Happen on Halloween,” a lounge music/disco mashup that plays out against a psychedelic montage of blue-screen effects.
8. Disney wanted complete creative control of The Worst Witch series in the ‘90s—and Jill Murphy wasn't having it.
In 2014, Murphy told The Telegraph that she “almost lost [Mildred]” to Disney in the ‘90s, when the House of Mouse wanted to adapt The Worst Witch into a cartoon. The project never got off the ground because Disney’s offer came with a massive catch: The entertainment empire wanted complete creative control over Murphy’s property, and she couldn’t bring herself to give it to them.
9. Jill Murphy tells fans that grown-up Mildred works in an animal shelter and “does magic things that nobody realizes.”
Though it’s been nearly 50 years since Mildred made her debut, she still hasn’t made it beyond her fourth year at Miss Cackle’s Academy. Murphy originally hadn’t given any thought to what might become of her after graduation, but according to The Telegraph’s oral history of the book series, fan interest forced her to reconsider. "I would say that she decides that she doesn't want to do anything witchy at all,” Murphy told the newspaper, “so she works in an animal shelter, and now and then she does magic things that nobody realizes.”