Jill Murphy, author of The Worst Witch, dies aged 72

Jill Murphy, author of The Worst Witch, dies aged 72

Children’s author and illustrator Jill Murphy, best known for the Worst Witch novels and Large Family picture books, has died aged 72. 

She passed away peacefully following a long struggle with cancer on Wednesday 18th August. Her son Charlie and niece Isabelle were at her side in hospital in Cornwall. 

Charlie said: “I feel beyond lucky to have had a mum like mine, and it’s impossible to summarise the ways her absence will be felt. She had a depth of character, a warmth and a life force like no other. I miss her so much already.” 

Pamela Todd, Jill Murphy’s friend and agent of more than 30 years, said: “It’s a sad day for children’s books. Jill was so creative, beautiful and funny. Her genius lay in the way both the child and the adult could identify with her stories, which she wrote and illustrated herself. Children who grew up on Peace at Last, Whatever Next! and The Large Family (Macmillan Children's Books) are now buying the books for their children’s children.  

“The little girls who created playground games around Mildred Hubble and her classmates are now directing, producing and acting in the television series of 'The Worst Witch' and the stage show, which, last year, took the Olivier award. Jill was just coming into her prime and had so much more to offer. This is a great loss, not least to me personally, but we are comforted that she leaves an amazing legacy of books for generations to come.” 

Murphy started drawing and writing stories from an early age and by the age of 11 had made 90 books, which she kept and used to inspire children at events in later life. She studied at the Chelsea, Croydon and Camberwell schools of art, and wrote and illustrated her first published book, the bestselling The Worst Witch (now with Puffin), while still only 18. It was published in 1974.

She has sold 2.6 million books for £12.6m via Nielsen BookScan's UK Total Consumer Market, which has measured sales since 1998, with the 2013 edition of The Worst Witch her bestseller on 202,574 copies sold.

She created the award-winning Large Family series in 1986, starting with Five Minutes Peace, which was also successfully adapted for TV. Her last picture book, Just One of those Days, was published by Macmillan Children’s Books in September 2020 and welcomed a new generation of fans to her well-loved Bear family.  

Belinda Ioni Rasmussen, m.d at Macmillan Children’s Books, paid tribute to Murphy, and said it had been “a privilege” to publish her for more than 40 years. “She had an unparalleled talent for storytelling through words and pictures and, without doubt, her picture books have become timeless children’s classics. When she drew the Bear family again for her latest book last year, it was as though they had never left her. The characters were the same, but undeniably contemporary and relevant, and ready to enchant new readers. Jill was funny, warm and kind and she was friends with many of us. She leaves a big hole in our hearts at MCB and will be missed very much, not least by me.” 

Francesca Dow, m.d at Penguin Random House Children’s, added: “At Puffin, we are so proud to publish Jill Murphy and the hapless adventures of Mildred, Maud, Enid and Ethel at Miss Cackle’s Academy. Children across the globe have discovered the joy and power of reading through Jill’s magical stories, and we look forward to ensuring The Worst Witch continues to fly high on her broomstick, in memory of her incredible creator, for many years to come.” 

Karen Lotz, m.d of the Walker Books Group, added: “We are devastated by the loss of our dear colleague Jill Murphy, a giant in the field of children’s literature who leaves an extraordinary legacy. Uniquely, she understood the range of childhood experience – from the humour and fun quirkiness to be found in humdrum, ordinary daily life, as in her beloved Large Family books, to the feeling of magic that empowers and enriches our childhoods, tangible in her iconic Worst Witch series. In its pathos and in perfectly capturing a range of human emotions, Jill’s work speaks to adults and children alike. Jill herself lived with enormous dignity and dedication to her craft despite having to face difficult challenges. We were enormously proud to publish her at Walker and Candlewick, and it’s a consolation to know that her wholly original work will continue to brighten the lives of children and families across the world.” 

Booksellers have also paid their tributes. Florentyna Martin, Waterstones children’s buyer, said: “Jill Murphy’s storytelling had a magic touch that both enchanted children and captivated adults. Many of us discovered a love of reading and illustration through her characters and worlds. Recommending Jill’s books is like gifting a hug, and we have hearts full of nostalgia for her stories. She will be deeply missed.”

Sanchita Basu De Sarkar, owner of The Children's Bookshop in Muswell Hill, north London, told The Bookseller: "In the bookshop her books are still beloved. There is a simple joy, love, wit and warmth that radiates from her picture books, and the Worst Witch adventures has introduced the magic of reading to generations of captivated young readers.

"One of our greatest recent pleasures in the bookshop has been to introduce a single page from her recently published Meltdown (Walker Books) to our customers, without context. The illustration is so brilliantly funny, and it depicts a toddler experience so absolutely universal that without fail, they have all bought it. It is greatly comforting to know that her books will always have a place in children's hearts."