'The Worst Witch' by Jill Murphy

The Worst Witch, by Jill Murphy”, a review by me (Chromomancer).

Currently available next to the sandwiches in Asda for only £3.50 (your supermarket may vary). Also available on Amazon at prices ranging from 54p used, via £1.37 new to £4.49 new (if you want to spend an extra £3.12).

As usual with reviews I write for Plotbunnies, this is intended as a review for writers rather than a review for readers. (Yes, good writers are also avid readers, but YKWIM.)

Published by Puffin Books, it says 7+ on the book, so I reckoned I was old enough to read it.

Nice big print, Baskerville (about 18pt, I reckon), and about 1.5 line spacing. About 100 pages, and at a rough estimate about 200 words per page, so somewhere around 20,000 words for the whole story, maybe a bit less.

I’ve heard of The Worst Witch but I’m not sure where. In a cartoon strip? On television? I don’t know, but along with the Roald Dahl’s books etc. it was enough to make me curious. And who knows? Maybe I can write fiction for ages 7+ myself. How hard can it be? (That's a joke: very hard is the answer.)

It says copyright 1974, so this is clearly a successful book, since it has been reprinted in yet another edition after forty years.

Picking somewhere at random: the second paragraph on the 53rd page, it goes:

‘I’m afraid I broke it in half during the first week of term,’ Mildred admitted.

Ethel giggled.

‘I see,’ said Miss Hardbottom. ‘Well, you certainly can’t use that one in the display. Ethel, I seem to remember you have a spare one. Perhaps you could lend it to Mildred?’

That’s about 50 words, so let’s compute the Fog index. (The sample should really be about 100 words, but 50 is enough.)

0.4*( 49/6 + 100*(3/49) ) = 5.7

I’m not sure how useful that number is, but it’s easy to calculate. Most popular novels (for adults) are about 8-10, according to a google search. Anything above 12 is getting difficult for many readers.

Anyway, back to the story. My first reaction was, “Oh, so this is where J K Rowling got her idea for Hogwarts.” If you haven’t figured it out yet (the title is a clue), Mildred is the protagonist; she is at a boarding school for teaching witches. Almost the first thing she has to do is learn to ride a broomstick (that’s what she broke, referred to in the excerpt above). The trainee witches have lessons where they learn how to make potions, and learn the words of spells and they get a cat (sorry, kitten) as a familiar (Rowling added more choice, including owls, toads, rats etc. but there are owls and bats at Mildred’s school too). And, of course, she wears special witch’s clothes. Rowling did make Hogwarts co-educational, and also added to Jill Murphy’s idea of detailed descriptions of food (and the dining hall), plus numerous other details (such as ghosts, talking pictures on the wall plus lots more). On the other hand, the first Harry Potter book was considerably more than 20,000 words. I’ve no idea whether Jill Murphy added similar texture to later stories about Mildred; I do know the first book led to a successful series, so it seems likely.

Ethel is Mildred's snooty enemy, but Mildred has a best friend called Maud (who “wore her hair in bunches” – Mildred has long plaits).

I nearly googled to find out what “wore her hair in bunches” meant, but as the book is illustrated, I was able to figure it out from the illustrations (assuming the illustrator knew what it meant and did the job properly). I also noticed that young trainee witches appear to wear hob-nailed boots, possible with steel toe-caps. (After reading about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld witches, this does not surprise me. Good for putting the boot in. A nice contrast to the Disney Princess/Flower Fairy genre aimed at a similar demographic.)

I won’t summarise the plot in detail, but basically Mildred starts off having a hard time and getting things wrong, but at least she has a best friend in Maud. Ethel is effortlessly good at everything and is nasty to Mildred.

After Ethel is forced by Miss Hardbottom (I’m sure adults can see how the name has been bowdlerised) to lend her spare broomstick to Mildred, she has it in for her, and plays a nasty trick on her which causes everyone (including even Maud) to blame Mildred for a Bad Thing that happened.

And then a deus ex machina is contrived so that Mildred saves the day, Ethel’s nasty trick is found out so that Ethel is shunned, and Mildred is the hero of the hour. The End.

My only criticism, I think, is that I would have liked more setting up so that Mildred’s saving the day (I won’t give away spoilers how) appeared more a natural consequence of her earlier actions, rather than a consequence of “doing the right thing” in a situation which arose by chance. But perhaps that doesn’t matter to the intended audience: after all, to an 8 year old, lots of things appear miraculous or inexplicable or chance, rather than the intended or unintended consequences of their or someone else’s actions. And setting up the concluding action would have made the story longer.

Final comment: there are only six named characters, not counting two kittens. (Only the three young witches I’ve already mentioned are named, plus three adult witches.) Not a cast of thousands.

Conclusion: keep it short, keep it simple, and make the problems something the audience can relate to. (And have a happy ending.)

Oh, and get a good illustrator! :) [That last is a joke: quite often the publisher will have their own ideas about who might illustrate a text, but perhaps it is worth noting where illustrations might go, and noting what you think would make a good illustration.]