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“I feel so lucky”: in a conversation with the late and beloved Jill Murphy | Children’s books: 7 years old and under

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Jill Murphy is on the phone, telling me about the last time she cried. “I was with my son. We had to come to terms with my illness, which neither of us was able to do at some point because we had always taken ourselves for granted. We are very close and we tried not to even admit how sick I was because neither of us wanted to upset the other or face what it meant to us.

It was late last year, and Murphy – the 72-year-old author of The worst witch, died of cancer last Wednesday – was speaking to me for an interview at Observer Magazine. “Eventually we got some outside help, mostly from friends, and we talked about my illness and how we were feeling. And, of course, we both cried and felt a lot better for it. “

The worst witch herself, Mildred Hubble, as drawn by Jill Murphy.

This is one of the last interviews she has ever given, and so far, as per her wishes, has never been released. As we spoke, the revered children’s author was hopeful about her chances of containing the aggressive secondary bone cancer that was spreading around her body, after five years in remission from breast cancer. However, after receiving bad news regarding his prognosis, his publicist contacted the Observer and explained that Murphy no longer wanted to speak publicly about his illness and was about to undergo intensive chemotherapy.

In our interview last September, Murphy said, “What I’m missing right now is drawing and writing. I didn’t realize, until I got sick, that I was constantly drawing and writing. Normally, I’ll cover the bottom of a box of tissues or a shopping list with designs from the next book I’m working on. Now my hands are damaged so I can’t anymore. But his desire to write and draw was still strong. “I have designs for my next book in a box on my desk and as usual they call me every day, as they always have.

Murphy’s career as a writer and illustrator began while she was still in school. She was only 18 when she completed the manuscript of The worst witch and created the most accident-prone student witch in history, Mildred Hubble. The book sold out within two months of its publication in 1974 and became an international bestseller – never out of print and often adapted for stage and screen.

“People think my greatest achievement is The worst witch. But this is not the case. This is my son Charlie. He goes above and beyond for me, ”Murphy told me.

But she is obviously extremely proud of Mildred and her enduring appeal. “Children often say The worst witch was the first book they actually read on their own. And sometimes I get a letter saying it was my favorite book when I was a kid and now my grandson loves it. I couldn’t ask for more, really, than a legacy like this, which will continue. I feel so grateful.

An illustration of the bear family on a city street on a rainy day, with a father and mother holding a junior bear by each hand
A scene from Just One of These Days, Murphy’s latest book, completed weeks before his diagnosis and featuring the bear family that featured in his first picture book. Photography: MacMillan Children’s Books

Even if The worst witch is a novel, Murphy has also won countless awards for his picture books, especially on the large elephant family, such as Five minutes of peace and All in one piece. His most recent work, Just one of these days, featured the bears last seen in its very first illustrated title, Peace at last. It was posted last September and she told me she finished it just three weeks before she started getting sick. “It was almost magical. Like somewhere inside, I knew it was going to happen.

She worked on this book more intensely than anything she had ever created before, she said. “I spent seven months on my feet most of the night and all day. And when I finished it, I was 100% happy with it. It was unusual, she said, as she is normally very critical of her job. “Usually I didn’t do it perfectly, but this book was different… I couldn’t have done better. “

She recalled her own childhood, growing up in post-war Britain. “I had a classic 1950s childhood. My mom was at home, because back then that was what mothers did. My father worked in an aircraft factory. He would get up very early in the morning, come home exhausted at night and I didn’t really see him.

By the age of six, she was already writing stories. “I created my own library by stapling the pages of my books together.” She has always been a talented writer and artist, but she was “hit from the bottom” in high school: “This whole horrible experience gave me the worst witch, because I was Mildred, one of the worst students. from school.

Later, she was expelled from art school. “But a tutor gave me the best advice I’ve ever had, and that was to always leave your desk ready for the next morning – even if you go to bed at 6 in the morning, which I did. often. Previously, I would sharpen all my crayons, clean the surface of the desk and put everything back, so that my pretty desk would attract me to work later.

Being so ill, she admitted that she asked herself questions such as, “Why did this happen to me?” But when she looks back, “I feel very lucky to have no regrets. Before that happened, I was very happy in life.”

She said she certainly did not intend to start complaining at the end of a long life lived “surrounded by love”. “I loved every minute of aging. Since I got sick I realized how amazing I had been in just about every department and took it all for granted. And if you’ve had that – and you have wonderful supportive relatives and friends – then you’ll never want to leave the party. Already.”


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