Friday, April 1, 2011

Book Review: The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy (1974)

The Worst Witch is a children's chapter book originally published in the UK in 1974. I first learned of it from the BBC television mini-series called Picture Book, which spotlighted various children's books that have built the foundation for present-day children's literature. The show pointed out that this book was unique because it put a fantastical twist on the typical school story.
The main character is Mildred Hubbell, and she is the worst student at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches. Nothing she does ever seems to turn out right:

You could rely on Mildred to have her hat on back-to-front or her bootlaces trailing along the floor. She couldn't walk from one end of a corridor to the other without someone yelling at her, and nearly every night she was writing lines or being kept in (not that there was anywhere to go if you were allowed out.)

Throughout the book, Mildred has a variety of mishaps, including turning a classmate into a pig, accidentally creating an invisibility potion, and ruining the class's broomstick formation performance. After realizing that this third accident was actually orchestrated by her rival, Ethel, Mildred decides to run away.

While out in the forest, however, she stumbles upon a secret threat to Miss Cackle's Academy and must decide what to do with that secret information.

This book has many, many parallels to the Harry Potter series, to the point that if it was published today, we might label it a copycat. It's hard to say, in a post-Harry Potter world, whether this book would have been considered especially creative when it was published, or not. I certainly think kids who have read Harry Potter, and are accustomed to a lot of action in their fantasy books would probably not be as thrilled by this one. But I also think the change in setting from typical elementary and middle schools does make this a unique read. There are a lot of books about tween girls dealing with awkwardness and striving to fit in with their peers, but few of them written for this age level take place in other worlds, where magic is also a part of that struggle.

I would recommend this book especially to fans of the Araminta Spookie books, and other books about otherworldly girls. It also made me think of Deborah Hautzig's Little Witch books from back in the 1980's, (which were apparently illustrated by Marc Brown!) though it doesn't seem like many of the titles I loved are in print anymore. It would also make a really good interim read for kids who want in on the wizard craze, but just aren't ready for Harry Potter yet. Parents often ask me for HP read-alikes that are short and easier to read, and The Worst Witch definitely fits the bill.

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