I thought this year I might try and do a regular post on nature writing for younger readers and celebrate younger authors as well, as part of the Gaia/nature challenge. I have long been a fan of wonderful picture books and firmly believe some of the best writing around is for children. Picture books make great coffee table books and a good children’s book will entertain no matter what the age of the reader.
Thought I would start off by talking about one of Australia’s most celebrated children’s authors Jackie French and her long association, both personal and literary, with wombats. A whole generation of Australian kids have grown up reading Jackie French and many started with the delightful Diary of a Wombat illustrated by Bruce Whatley.
Diary of a Wombat tells the story of Mothball, whose day largely consists of sleeping, scratching and more sleeping, digging in the garden, and demanding carrots and oats from her human slaves. The book is beautifully illustrated by Bruce Whatley who captures Mothballs determined character. Designed to raise a smile from both children and adults alike, it is easy to see why the book has become an international bestseller and spawned at least six other titles:
Jackie French has long had wombats regularly visit her country home. Mothball is one of many wombats she has known and observed over the years. Writing on nature and sustainability for both children and adults is something Jackie French does regularly. I currently have reservation requests at the local library for several of Jackie’s books for adults on sustainability and wild gardening, and am looking forward to reading those.
Jackie French has also written a natural history book on wombats for younger readers, the fascinating The secret world of Wombats, also beautifully illustrated by Bruce Whatley. While this is still a book for kids, I have to say I enjoyed it very much, as an adult reader. From the blurb: “…Jackie French has been living with and studying wombats for over thirty years – they are her Muse for many wonderful stories she has written. Now Jackie has put down almost everything anyone ever wanted to know about wombats – especially her wombats! To Jackie, wombats are more fascinating than aliens – and just as strange!
French makes wombats fascinating, not that they need much help with that. I am sure anyone who has ever encountered a wombat will be intrigued by these mysterious little bulldozers of the bush. I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of wombats remarkable, heightened sense of smell and the role that plays in their ability to see the world and to communicate, as Jackie states: “Wombats stink. (p100) That stink is a form of communication: “Wombats ‘talk’ to each other with their droppings and other smells. (Life would be a lot smellier if humans talked like wombats.) (p.95) Even the placement of droppings is linguistically loaded for wombats. All this information is conveyed in a lighthearted anecdotal style making this book eminently readable.
Most intriguing were Jackie’s observations on wombat intelligence, she points out it is hard to establish wombat intelligence: “…their intelligence is so different from ours that we mostly don’t understand it” . (p91) Sometimes rigidly controlled experimentation does not give us answers but observation can certainly raise lots of questions. Problem-solving and tool use were once thought to be uniquely human, but Jackie tells the intriguing tale of Moriarty, who in her determination to get into the veggie garden enlisted the use of a tomato stake to move rocks that had been placed to block her access. Clearly, Moriarty had given some thought to the problem at hand:
I then asked a friend to help me move a truckload of giant boulders.
‘There’s no way any wombat can move these!’ declared my friend.
But the next morning the boulders had been shifted – and Moriarty was in the vegetable garden… again.
How could one small wombat move giant boulders?
That night I stayed up late. But there was no sign of Moriarty.
I stayed up late the second night too. No wombat.
But on the third night a small, round, brown shape padded down to the vegetable garden.
Was that something in her mouth? It was a tomato stake!
Even now it’s hard to believe what I saw that night. But there in the moonlight Moriarty used that tomato stake as a lever. The rock moved one centimetre, two … just enough for a furry body to squeeze past. (p.60)
Moriarty is Jackie’s only example of direct tool use, although Mothball would move a box so she could stand on it to better attack the mop that had somehow offended her. Then there is Pudge the wombat who could count, but that story I will leave for the interested reader to find in The Secret World of Wombats.
Amongst the many interesting facts in The Secret World of Wombats is, information on how wombats will sometimes share territory, especially during drought, though they are primarily solitary animals. Then there is the amazing engineering, and age of their burrows. They will re-use old burrows, re-building or re-conditioning a burrow, (Mothball would line her burrow with sprigs of lavender). This information is particularly relevant in light of Jackie’s most recent wombat book: The Fire Wombat, this time beautifully illustrated by Danny Snell.
Inspired by events surrounding the 2019/2020 bushfires The Fire Wombat celebrates the remarkable survival of animals through the use of wombat burrows, the only shelter available. At the time, reports of wombats saving other animals were positively viral, although not entirely accurate. Wombats are generally very tolerant of other animals, which does allow for sharing of burrows, though they are solitary by nature.
The Fire wombat is an absolutely charming children’s book, despite the seemingly dark subject matter:
… Fire’s hunger swallowed day. Colour lost to black and grey. … Other creatures woke and fled, Spurred by age-old pounding dread: A bounding tide of kangaroos, A screaming flock of cockatoos, Goannas dug in termite mounds, Echidnas scratched dirt all around … The only safety underground. That was where the wombat fled, Others followed where she led, To ancient tunnels cool and deep, …
The story is about a little more than just the phenomena of animals finding shelter in wombat burrows. It also celebrates the way Australians rose to the challenge of the fires and supported efforts to provide support post fires. It is, as Jackie says in the video below primarily about kindness:
The book concludes with the germane note:
Australian animals are adapted to bushfires. Koalas curl at the tops of the tallest trees, usually safe as the flames burn the bark and leaves below. Bats wake at the scent of smoke. Lizards know to find rock crevices. Echidnas burrow down and scratch up dirt to cover the skin under their protective quills. Many Australian animals can slow their metabolisms to sleep until the fires have passed, then seek out unburnt gullies.
But in the Australian bushfire of 2019/2020, whole trees exploded when the flames hit. The losses were so vast that there was no food for the few survivors to find. Wild animals needed human help so that even more species didn’t become extinct.
Those animals still need to start wary of humans, or they may follow people or cars, hoping for food. The wrong food or polluted water can also kill them.
If you want to help wildlife after disasters, donate to a wildlife charity, or join a group that can train you in animal care. We humans have taken so much of the earth. Unless we create safe refuges for animals, our planet will soon be silent, except for the sounds of humans.
As part of helping wildlife, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of The Fire wombat is donated to the wombat protection society. I can highly recommend this title for any child. It deals sensitively and beautifully with a very dark event in our recent history and would contribute to growing love, understanding and respect for our natural world. B had the privilege of growing up surrounded by books, including many of Jackie French’s loved titles.
I recently heard of a new children’s literacy project here in Toowoomba, which is due to launch soon. As part of that project, there is a one-way children’s library operating, to get books into kids homes. Not every child has the luxury of a home library, sometimes there may be no books at all in the home. I thought it might be nice to donate a children’s book to that project for every post, (ok, maybe I better set a limit of the first 25 posts, or this could bankrupt me), any participant in the Gaia/nature challenge posts for the months of January and February this year. (To be honest, I am only expecting a hand full of posts but please feel free to go all out, this is a good cause).
So let me repeat, if you are participating in the Gaia/nature reading challenge, remember to leave a comment on the blog with a link to any post you make on any platform; a blog, Instagram, GoodReads whatever you use and I will donate a children’s book to the Lighthouse complex and the Write Gallery (home of the new children’s literacy project and writers centre). As soon as I know more and have a web page I can share with you I will post that, in the meantime; the project is the brainchild of Toowoomba writer Emma Mactaggart.
The Gaia/nature reading challenge is about a love of the natural world and a love of reading, so it seems appropriate to support a children’s literacy project by donating nature themed books to a charity that is about empowering kids with books. Jackie French, who despite her dyslexia has published over 200 books, is herself a great advocate for children’s literacy. Check out her website and the Rights of the child reader. Or if you would just like a daily dose of wombat check out Jackie’s Instagram: jackie_french_
For the purpose of this post, I sourced all the books from the curriculum collection at USQ library but I have also gone out and purchased a copy of The fire Wombat to donate to the Lighthouse Project. The first post this year for the Gaia challenge was May’s post at Bizzy Mays Books and Bruchetta, appropriately May posted a review of the children’s book Dry to Dry: The seasons of Kakadu so in honour of that post, the first book has been purchased.
For more on the subject of wombats as accidental heroes of the bushfires check out this ABC story: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-15/australian-bushfires-wombat-heroes-have-gone-viral/11868808 or this video of a koala and a rabbit seen exiting an occupied wombat burrow:
I will count all of the above titles as one towards my reading for the Gaia/nature reading challenge and I think they let me cross off the wonder of a child square in the book bingo accompanying the challenge. Each month for 2022 I will try and add at least one post featuring nature writing for children, this is just the first. If you would like to join the challenge details are here and you can download the pdf of the book bingo on that page also. Or, you can join the challenge by leaving a comment on this post, feel free to link back to whatever platform you might use to record your reading.