Our writers are (lovingly) foisting pop-culture favourites on their unsuspecting nippers. This week, Dotty Winters and her six-year-old explore the Bechdel-test-friendly world of The Worst Witch.
Long before Harry, Ron and Hermione battled the forces of evil, the world of magic schoolchild japes belonged to Mildred, Maud and Enid, pupils of Miss Cackle’s Academy and heroines of The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy. I loved the first two books in the series (published in 1974 and 1980) and since then a further five books have been added, with the most recent published in 2013.
It feels almost impossible to talk about these books without comparisons to other famous magic-based school stories and, I’ll admit, I first reached for these when I realised that my little one wasn’t quite old enough for the world of Potter yet.
Rediscovering the books with my six-year-old I realised that, beyond some surface similarities, The Worst Witch is very different from the world of Harry Potter. The stories focus less on recklessly battling the clamouring forces of evil and more on situations which are relatable to the target audience: friends, enemies, frenemies, school projects and hostile takeovers of much-loved institutions by the near-identical evil sister of your headmistress (we’ve all been there).
The jokes too, are age-appropriate for a six-to-eight year-old, relying less on a detailed understanding of Latin and more on an understanding of why it’s funny to see that bitch Ethel end up getting turned into a pig (she’s awful, honestly).
The characters in this book are pleasingly complex; even evil Ethel isn’t all bad and has brief moments of humanity. The grown-ups don’t always get it right and the heroes sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for the right reason.
All of the main characters in this book are female but it’s not a girly book. Gender isn’t an issue and it’s never a barrier to getting stuck into adventures. Moreover, unlike other books set in all-girl schools, zero percent of it relates to crushes, pillow fights or midnight feasts.
“Watching Mildred struggle with and come to terms with the allure of Enid gave my little one a new language to talk about his emerging understanding of peer pressure and how to deal with it, without it feeling like a loaded teachable moment.”
The beauty of The Worst Witch is in how it so neatly captures the notion of imposter syndrome, which seems to creep into most of us as soon as we are old enough to notice the people around us.
Mildred is hopeless at some things and superb at others but she lets her insecurity shape her approach to everything. She never quite believes she is good enough and finds it hard to accept that others see good in her. This makes her an incredibly relatable central character and led to some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had with any six-year-old (even better than that time he asked me why Jesus was always playing aeroplanes).
Maud is a perfect model of what it looks like to be a good friend but Enid is far more interesting. She is competitive and naughty. Enid is enormous fun to be around but not always the best choice to spend time with if you want to stay out of trouble. Unlike Ethel, she is truly good-hearted and very well-meaning but her moral compass fell off a high shelf and sometimes points towards mischief. Watching Mildred struggle with and come to terms with the allure of Enid gave my little one a new language to talk about his emerging understanding of peer pressure and how to deal with it, without it feeling like a loaded teachable moment.
While the scope of these tales is domestic compared with some other stories, there is no lack of adventure and peril and the end of each chapter was met with demands for “just one more”. The Worst Witch is genuinely funny too, leaving us both with the giggles. With some books having been added to the series quite recently I got to experience the later ones for the first time and it was an utter delight, for both of us.2347 Views
Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.