Today is World Book Day. It might sound like an unimportant event in the grand scheme of things, but to me, this day is an important one. It's a chance to talk to kids about books, encourage their love of reading and, for me as an adult, to reminisce over stories I loved when I was growing up.
For me, there were many books that cemented their place in my affections when I was young. One of the earliest ones was Angelina Ballerina; a book which is still beloved by children, today. And a book featuring a character I totally dressed up as a few years ago for World Book Day...
I had a tail and EVERYTHING.
I also loved Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree and The Wishing Chair and once I got a bit older, I had (and still have) a huge soft spot for Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did.
But there was one book I loved above pretty much anything else. One book I could read over and over and never get bored of. This one:
Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch is, as far as I'm aware, the only book I deliberately own two copies of. The one on the left in the photo is the very same, well-thumbed copy I first got when I was only around 7 years old. The pages have turned that yellowish colour that defines old books and the spine is, as you can see, a bit battered, The copy on the right is one I got a few years ago, funnily enough, on World Book Day, if I remember rightly. I was at work, but I heard that Jill Murphy was doing a signing at the primary school across the road from where I worked back then, so I handed someone some cash and pretty much begged them to get me a nice, shiny new copy of The Worst Witch for her to sign. They duly trotted off to the primary school later that afternoon and when I finished work, I was presented with this:
One of my most prized possessions.
So why did - sorry, do - I love The Worst Witch so much?
Well, it tells the story of a trainee witch called Mildred Hubble. She's studying at Miss Cackle's Academy For Witches, but she's not exactly a model student. She's clumsy, her spells usually go wrong and before her adventures have even begun, she's already had to stick her broomstick back together after crashing it into a wall. There's a particularly unpleasant girl at her school, named Ethel, who picks on Mildred mercilessly and her form-tutor, Miss Hardbroom isn't exactly nice to her, either. Eventually, Mildred decides enough is enough and runs away. And yet, in doing so... She ends up accidentally saving the day and returns a hero.
Much like Katherine Carr in What Katy Did, Mildred is something of an unexpected heroine, Her heart's in the right place, but she doesn't quite know what she's doing... Reading The Worst Witch for the first time, aged around 7 years old, I absolutely fell in love with the messy-haired, freckle-faced Mildred. I may have been pretty good at school, but I shared her clumsiness and her sense of not quite fitting in. From the moment I first read the book, all my drawings were of girls with long, plaited hair and freckles. All of the stories I made up from that point onwards (and I made up a lot of stories as a kid) featured someone getting into mischief or trouble, but usually managing to turn things around, by hook or by crook.
The Worst Witch wasn't just a story I loved. It fed my imagination so much that it made me want to write my own stories. It was The Worst Witch that led to me sneaking blank exercise books home from school, in which I would create my own characters and situations, adding little illustrations to go along with them. It's genuinely no exaggeration to say that reading Jill Murphy's book set me onto the path towards becoming an author myself.
As a child who moved around a lot (I was a military brat) and who ended up being bullied pretty horrendously at secondary school, creating my own little imaginary world became the ultimate escape. And although as I got older, my taste in books matured, I kept a very soft spot in my heart for the children's books that had been my constant when growing up. I realised the important effect they'd had on me and I decided that I wanted to write stories for children, myself. Thrilled by the way books had sparked my imagination and grateful for the escapism they had provided when necessary, I wanted to create something that would do the same for future generations. Even long after I had left education and entered the world of work, becoming a children's author remained one of my biggest dreams.
In 2011, that dream came true, with the publication of three children's books, under the banner title The ABC Animals. The three stories, featuring jungle animals getting into various scrapes and learning lessons along the way, all shared something in common; each featured a character who didn't seem a likely hero showing that you can be a hero, just by being yourself and by opening your eyes to those around you. It's safe to say those early influences of mine hadn't exactly rubbed off...
Okay, so I didn't set the literary world on fire... Yet. The point is, writing is still a massive part of my life, as the very existence of this blog proves. And I'm still thinking of stories all the time. Being a children's author is still a dream (although now it's "to be a successful children's author...").
One of the most treasured moments of my life took place just a few months after my own book launch. Jill Murphy was holding a signing for her latest children's book at the very same local book shop. I wasn't working that day, so I hot-footed it down there, bought a copy (somewhat conspicuously, seeing as I had - and have - no kids to give it to...) and slightly nervously waited in line for her to sign it. When my turn came, I swallowed hard in an effort not to come across as a crazy fan-girl and I told Jill that it was thanks to The Worst Witch that I had followed my own dream of writing. She asked if I'd had anything published. I said yes, The ABC Animals and she nodded over to where one of the titles in the series was sitting on a shelf nearby and said: "I was just reading that, earlier! It's good!"
Now, she may have been lying. I'm aware of that. But I choose to believe she wasn't. I choose to believe that the very author who sparked my love of story-writing really did read one of my books and she really did like it.
Whatever the case, it doesn't really matter. Because the whole point is that we can take inspiration from anything and we can use it to run with; to fuel our own dreams and to act as targets for our goals. For me, it was a simple story about a clumsy girl who doesn't quite fit in, which touched a nerve and stayed with me right into adulthood.
I bought my copy of The Worst Witch at a book fair with a token I'd been given by my school (I seem to recall I won said token as a prize for a poster competition I'd entered). Today, children all across the UK will have gone home from school with a book token, to celebrate World Book Day. I just hope whatever they spend it on fires their imagination the same way that books fired mine as a kid.
It might even set them on a path towards becoming the writers of the future.
After all, a story can take you anywhere...
Me as Mildred Hubble. World Book Day 2015.