Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Worst Witch

The Worst Witch
by Jill Murphy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Mildred Hubble is the most mishap-prone Year One student at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches. Her broomstick is held together by cellotape. Her familiar, who would traditionally be a black cat, is only a gray tabby. When she tries to turn a bullying snob named Ethel into a frog, she gets the spell wrong and turns her into a pig instead. Her poor judgment even affects her best friend Maud, like she makes a mistake in potions class and turns them both invisible.

Poor Mildred is constantly being sent to Miss Cackle's office, and she's afraid that if this keeps up, she'll be sent away from the school. Mildred's misery comes to a head on Halloween night when, thanks to a prank by Ethel, everybody blames her for spoiling a broomstick formation flight in front of all the local wizards. Mildred decides to run away from school, only to stumble upon a sneaky threat to Miss Cackle's Academy. In less time than it takes me to write this, the school's most hopeless witch becomes the hero of the hour.

Not so much a novel as a very slim chapter book, this story bubbles like a cauldron full of laughing potion. It's warmhearted, funny, full of insight into a child's anxieties about school, with friendly illustrations and just a pinch of Halloweenie spookiness mixed with its magic. Written at a level that I think would go over a treat with kids too little to start on Harry Potter, it bears comparison on a number of points with J.K. Rowling's later series of books (like, for example, being set in a castle). I like Mildred, and I'll surely look in on some of her other adventures in the future.

Written way back in 1974, this is the first installment in the eight-book "Worst Witch" series, with sequels running from 1980's The Worst Witch Strikes Again to 2018's First Prize for the Worst Witch. It's been adapted as a TV movie starring Fairuza Balk (1986), A Canadian TV series (1998-2001) with at least two spinoffs, and an ongoing CBBC series that started in 2017. There has even been a live stage version. British author Jill Murphy has also penned about 11 "Large Family" children's books and the standalone books Geoffrey Strangeways, Worlds Apart and Dear Hound.

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