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Dear Jill...

By This is Cornwall  |  Posted: May 06, 2010

  • Jill Murphy at home with her two dear, deerhounds.

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JILL MURPHY is one of the most successful children's authors of the last 40 years – her Worst Witch stories have sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and she is also responsible for such popular picture books as The Large Family series and Peace At Last.

I suspect every home with children of primary school age will have at least one of her delightful books, which she both writes and illustrates, taking pride of place on a shelf.

Jill – who has lived in St Mabyn, near Wadebridge, since 1999 – now has her first non-Worst Witch fiction book published for 15 years.

Dear Hound, released by Puffin, is a heartwarming story, which judging from my daughters' rapt attention while I read it at bedtime, will become another much-loved Jill Murphy classic.

It tells the story of Alfie, a large grey deerhound puppy. He loves cheese, digging holes and his owner Charlie. But one day, Alfie gets lost and he's scared – of thunderstorms and being hungry and never seeing Charlie again. Meanwhile, Charlie doesn't know what to do – but one thing is for sure: he'll never stop looking for his dear hound…

On visiting Jill's beautiful house it's obvious where the story came from, as two lolloping, soppy deerhounds greet me. "Deerhounds really are a law unto themselves," she says.

A single parent since her son Charlie – who gave his name to the little boy in her new book – was born 20 years ago, she is currently more excited about the growing success of his rock band Lioness than the publication of Dear Hound.

Of course, she is best known for The Worst Witch: "I was 18 when I wrote the first one and still have the rejection letters hanging up in my studio – it was all influenced by the convent school I attended. In fact, the uniform was exactly the same.

"I actually started writing little picture books, which I stapled together, when I was six – 54 years ago. I still have them and show them when I visit schools. I later worked at Fenwick's department store in London, but as soon as I got on the bus home I would madly start writing. It's what I always wanted to do."

She is especially proud of her lovely house in St Mabyn as she never imagined ever living in such a place.

"I did not start making a living from the books until I was 27 or 28, and I couldn't afford anywhere to live until I was 32; I was largely living on friends' floors until then. I cannot believe my luck that I have a job I love doing – it's an utter miracle and I've never stopped being grateful.

"I love living in St Mabyn and recently got involved in the fight to keep the primary school open, which we won. Charlie calls me Che Guevara now."

She has fans all over the world, from those who grew up with the Worst Witch series, the first of which was published in 1969, through to those who love her award winning picture books, none of which have ever been out of print.

"Children write to me all the time. I received a letter recently from a little girl in Australia, who told me she loved the Worst Witch books. It was such a lovely letter I sent her a copy of Dear Hound. She wrote back saying 'I told you I like witches, not dogs'. It's put me off writing back a bit now," she laughs.

After The Worst Witch books and their heroine Mildred Hubble who is very much a self-portrait, Jill's other much-loved creation is the Large Family – two put-upon elephant parents and their four demanding children.

I found it interesting that as a single parent of one child she had captured perfectly the dynamics of a large family.

"Well those books are specifically influenced by my friends Sue and Geoff Edwards, a former Wadebridge GP, who live near the Camel Trail. Sue and I always used to go shopping in Bodmin and I remember one morning when she was trying to relax in the bath before one of our trips and the children were constantly coming upstairs, playing recorder, asking her questions and generally bothering her... That became Five Minutes' Peace."

I had the honour of visiting Jill's studio at the top of her house where she is working on her next picture book, another story based on a true event she has stored in her memory.

She said: "I was on the beach with a friend and her daughter who was five and going through the 'why' stage – she's 32 now – kept asking why she couldn't have an ice cream. The questions and answers kept going until my friend shouted 'because Mother Knows Best!'

"That's the title of the new book which I think is my funniest yet. I tested it out on an electrician who came round the other day and who has two young daughters. He burst out laughing at the end, so that's a good sign!"

● Dear Hound is available at all good book shops in Puffin paperback.

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