Originally published in 1974, author Jill Murphy, who was fifteen when she began writing The Worst Witch. The Worst Witch series is beloved in the UK and has been made into a television film and a television series that spawned two spinoff shows. Long before there was Hogwarts, there was Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches where out hero, Mildred Hubble, is a stand out student - a stand out for being the worst witch there. The headmistress, Miss Cackle, is understanding, but Miss Hardbroom, the "extremely strict and exacting form mistress, (and later, Miss Granite and Miss Mould) isn't so forgiving of Mildred's mishaps. Besides Mildred's friends, Maud Moonshine and Ethel Nightshade, and her nemesis, Ethel Hallow and her bestie Drusilla Paddock. To round everything out, and make Mildred even more awkward, all students are given the requisite black cats at a special assembly for first years. However, instead of receiving a sleek, black kitten like the rest of her classmates, Mildred is given Tabby, a ginger cat who is deeply terrified of flying on the back of a broom.
The Worst Witch: To the Rescue begins in March with the start of the Summer Term. Miss Hardbroom has assigned a holiday project to her form and, rather than give them the usual kind of project that would involve researching their book Spell Sessions and learning a complicated new spell, she has given them free range, telling them only to come back with something "unusual and interesting." In a curious reversal, Ethel has come up short, returning without a project in hand, and Mildred has a brilliant project to present - she has made up a spell that will give an animal (25 cm and under - the spell requires exact proportions) the ability to speak! We learn all this when Mildred crash lands in a tree upon returning to Miss Cackle's Academy and Ethel, in an uncommon act of kindness, stops to help Mildred, who is trying to calm a terrified Tabby, by collecting the spilled contents (including 20 new colored pencils!) of her school bag.
Despite the crash landing upon arrival, Mildred feels like things are going well for her this term and that she will finally prove to Miss Hardbroom that she is capable and reliable. In class with Miss Mould, she makes a perfect coil pot out of clay and is praised, while Ethel struggles and is criticized. Pretending to want to learn from her, Ethel practices on Mildred's pot, secretly casting a spell on it that turns it into a nest of snakes. Of course, Ethel knows the exact spell to get rid of the snakes. Things get worse when, in Miss Hardbroom's class, Ethel presents her Mildred's project as her own. Mildred tries to prove to Miss Hardbroom that this is her project, but fails spectacularly and is "transferred,"magically sent to her room, the "most humiliating dismissal a teacher could possibly make."
The world Murphy creates is every bit as complete as Hogwarts, although not nearly as menacing. Murphy's characters are interesting and genuinely girlish, and Murphy's illustrations of them are both charming and contemporary. Although just under 200 pages long, the plot of The Worst Witch: To the Rescue is rich with detail and complex. A tortoise named Speedy, secretly smuggled into school by Mildred when she thought her speaking spell failed on him and she felt guilty leaving him behind, plays a big role in the plot in an exciting and suspenseful way. Best of all, Ethel gets her just desserts when the truth comes out, making for a very satisfying ending. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Worst Witch: To the Rescue and know that I would have absolutely loved it had I read it as a child. The Worst Witch series is perfect for younger readers who have been exposed to Harry Potter and are intrigued by it but not quite ready for the series, which grows increasingly complex and dark with each of the seven books.
The Worst Witch Series:
Source: Review Copy