The old don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover rule. It gets me every time. Of course I judge books by their covers! I’m a children’s librarian with a particular kind of taste in titles. I know what I like and I don’t have time to read and review books that don’t look like they’re my cup of tea. How does this system work out for me? Most of the time it seems to work out just fine. If I’m passing on fabulous books then I never know it because I didn’t read them. I came half a sliver of a hair away from missing Wombat and Fox too. Oh sure, I gave the cover a little half glance but the art wasn’t my style so I didn’t think much about it. Someone had to really talk it up to me to get me interested too. Fortunately, the key to Wombat an Fox is that once you read even so much as a sentence, you are sucked in wholly and completely without a hope or a prayer of escape. So it is that I am head over heels in love with this smart and snappy little early chapter book from Australia, in spite of my continuing cover prejudice.
In three short stories we follow the misadventures of good friends Wombat and Fox. In “Wombat’s Lucky Dollar”, Wombat locates a coin on the side of the road that he is convinced will bring him luck. Unfortunately a run in with an angry ice cream vendor, a water rat, the Hippo Sisters, and others leads to nothing but trouble. Fox is convinced that the dollar is unlucky, but one wombat’s misfortune can be a bandicoot’s lucky day. In “Golden Cleat Fox”, Fox discovers that he has a miraculous inability to kick a soccer ball into its goal. When the local Five Monkeys come by and steal the ball, Fox finds a way to accomplish all his goals, both literally and figuratively. Finally in “A Hot Night in the City”, Wombat and Fox must endure an escalating series of adventures before they find a way to beat the seemingly inescapable heat of the summer.
The same person who recommended this book to me in the first place had a very good point about it that I’d like to paraphrase here. She said that there are some early chapter books out there that you read to children. They make for excellent teacher reads or bedtime stories but they’re not necessarily something a child would pick up on their own for fun. Sheep and Goat by Marleen Westra or Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins are excellent examples of this kind of book. Then there are stories like this one. Talk about readability. I could engage in long convoluted sentences to convince you as to why this book is so charming or I could merely reprint the book’s first eight sentences instead. And since the first eight sentences were what convinced me to keep reading in the first place, it seems only fair to show them to you now:
“This is a story of what happened to Wombat on Tuesday. I could tell you about Monday, but nothing happened on Monday. So Tuesday it is. Wombat’s phone was nearly out of minutes so he went to the mobile phone shop. He had never needed to get minutes before. He had no one much to phone. Except Fox. Only Fox always had his phone turned off to save the battery.”
Part of the appeal here is that we are dealing with a story that feels as if it could be timeless, yet it contains some awfully contemporary ideas. It’s a feeling not too dissimilar to the one I had when I read Paddington Here and Now by Michael Bond and watched the bear from darkest Peru travel in the London Eye. Sometimes a children’s book will sabotage its timelessness by mentioning the hottest video games or coolest pop singers. That’s bad. But like the Paddington book, Wombat and Fox contains modern references that do not date the book. Wombat has to buy cell phone minutes? That’s almost quaint. And later, the water in a public fountain has been turned off because, “It had been a long hot summer, with water restrictions.” Again it’s a pretty contemporary note, but it works within the context of the narrative. So as it stands, this book is pretty darn timeless already.
Back to the writing; Denton has an almost off-hand style that suits the format particularly well. Breaking up his sentences with small pen-and-ink illustrations everywhere, one early section describes Wombat seeing something shining in the sunlight, “On the sidewalk, to his left. Your right. His left.” And indeed the image accompanying these words shows Wombat facing the viewer with the coin on his left, your right. That is, until the next illustration switches the view so that you are behind him (clarifying how one person’s right can be another person’s left). It’s small. It’s understated. It fits.
Wombats are so perfectly situated to become the next big children’s literary phenomenon (ousting the penguins from their chilly throne) that it’s amazing to me that there aren’t more wombat books out there. There is, of course, Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Don’t Pat the Wombat by Elizabeth Honey (which is a very funny, too little read book here in the States) but I’m fairly certain that average American joe schmoe/jill schmill isn’t going to be able to tell you much about the furry little critters. At least Wombat and Fox gives you a couple facts to go on. Wombats clearly have a difficult time driving cars. They like to keep cool in the summer and they have problems with money matters in general. I don’t think anyone is going to contest any of those points, so Terry Denton is on the ball as far as that goes. Foxes are a different matter entirely, and as this one is prone to wearing a mask and superhero cape I don’t know how much we can trust him. Plus you have to feel a little bad for Croc who appears on the cover and in every story of this book alongside our two heroes but did not manage to get her name into the title. That’s gotta hurt!
I mentioned before that Denton’s artistic style, at least on the cover, was not my cup of tea. But his pictures grew on me. Inside the book the small details and brief two-page panoramas act as succinct little complements to every scene. Some kids who are reading early chapter books have the words down, sure, but they still need some pictures to help them along. In fact I get a lot of parents at my reference desk with children who will only read Captain Underpants. What can I recommend as the next step? I can recommend Wombat and Fox, a book with enough action and slapstick to amuse the Underpants fan but that also knows how to use a good plethora of pictures.
I don’t expect Wombat and Fox hysteria to sweep the nation but I have dreams for this little book. I imagine it getting a small underground fan base. I imagine people thirty years from now reminiscing over reading it as small children, seeking it out at their local libraries. I imagine small Wombat and Fox online societies and maybe even Terry Denton’s papers in a nice university collection. But even if only some of that happens, I can at least rest assured that no matter who I hand this book to, they will be instantly charmed. You cannot read this collection of three stories and dislike it. And how many books, honestly, can you say that about?
- I would advise you to go check out Terry Denton’s website, but it has remained untouched since 2002. This may set a new record for Number of Years a Living Author Has Gone Without an Update. We are seeking other nominations.
- Here is a preview of the sequel Wombat and Fox: Summer in the City.
- Also, here’s a rather Reading Rainbowesque booktalk: