I've often felt like Mildred Hubble, the "worst witch" in her school. I was good at English and French, but terrible at practical subjects. Truth was, I had clammy hands when I got nervous, and shaky spatial awareness. Once, I actually stitched a felt bookmark to my skirt in a needlework lesson! I'd wondered why the material seemed so very, very thick....
Anyway, Mildred Hubble, the Worst Witch herself, was one of my favorite characters when I was young. In fact, I secretly re-read Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch when I was a teen too. Now, decades later, I'm re-reading it with my partner, and it's still as delightful as ever. Fellow Harry Potter fans will enjoy it, I think.
One of my favorite moments in The Worst Witch is when Mildred stands up to the jeering Ethel, the witch of her year who always gets things "perfect", and does so by trying to turn her into a frog. To be fair, Ethel is being nasty at the time. In fact, she pours scorn on Mildred for having a tabby kitten instead of a black one, which is rather catty, if you'll pardon the pun. Mildred warns Ethel that if she isn't quiet, she'll turn her into a frog. And when Ethel jeers at her, saying, "Go on, then ... if you're so clever..." Mildred goes for the "frog spell" jugular.
Except she gets the wrong spell.
The consequence? Ethel becomes a pink and grey pig.
At this point comes a sentence that once made me rock with laughter: "The pig looked furious."
Isn't it funny how the simplest lines can hit the right spot? Looking at it now, I think I see why. Even after Ethel is changed into a pig, she is referred to as "the pig" rather than Ethel.
"You beast, Mildred Hubble!" it grunted. "Change me back!"
I still find these moments as glorious as ever. They really are pure gold. That said, I now buckle at seeing any pet or animal referred to as "it" unless they happen to be the Horror Crow of Doom or something. In fact, while Mildred and Ethel are delightful to re-read, there are other things that I dislike about The Worst Witch. Mrs. Cackle, the school headteacher, is referred to as sweet, but she's actually rather nasty to Mildred. Having been a teacher myself, I'd never say the equivalent of this to a child:
"You must be the worst witch in the entire school."
I don't care if they've set fire to the student changing rooms and the school is expelling them for terrible behavior, I'll never say they're the worst child in the entire school! I'll say their behavior is downright disturbing and dangerous, but saying they personally are the worst? No. That's the stuff that can scar a struggling heart for life. No wonder Mildred has learned to be cruel to her kitten saying, "I think I shall have to call you Stupid," when the poor tabby is slow in learning how balance on the back of a broomstick.
A broomstick, no less! Talk about a tall order.
Anyway, I am having a fantastic time returning to the wonderful world of Mildred Hubble. If you're planning to read this book with a young reader, you can always use the few moments when the characters are mean to themselves or others as discussion points too. Questions like, "Why might Mildred have been cruel to her kitten? What might she have been feeling, at the time? Do you think she'd have been so cruel if others had treated her better?" are all great discussions around character motivation and emotional intelligence. And they teach a reader to be active too in their interpretations.
Fortunately, Mildred has her chance to be seen as the best witch. She rises above the "worst witch" label. I'm really looking forward to finishing her story -- if it's as I remember, it's going to be a blast.
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