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Review of the Day: How to Scratch a Wombat by Jackie French

How to Scratch a Wombat
By Jackie French
Illustrated by Bruce Whatley
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
ISBN: 978-0-618-86864-3
Ages 6-10
On shelves February 16th

I remember where I was the first time I read Jackie French’s Diary of a Wombat. I was in a bookstore perusing the picture book titles when I was struck by the image of Bruce Whatley’s ridiculously adorable wombat dead asleep on its side, a pile of carrots sitting nearby. Mind you, I did not know what a wombat was. The name was vaguely familiar. It’s one of those Australian names for an animal I’d never seen before, right? The book turned out to be just as charming as the cover, and through it whole generations of American children have learned some basic facts about Vombatus ursinus. But at its heart, Diary of a Wombat is just a picture book. It isn’t non-fiction (though many of the events in it are based on real life). What is non-fiction is French and Whatley’s follow-up title, How to Scratch a Wombat. This 96-page book will answer most of your most basic questions about the world of wombats. What do they eat? What kinds are there? And can you really scratch one? A fascinating examination of a critter too little known on our side of the pond.

A wombat was responsible for Jackie French’s career as a writer. Unemployed, alone, and in need of $106.44, Ms. French found a typewriter and proceeded to write a children’s book in her shed. A nearby wombat named Smudge disliked the typewriter thoroughly though, and he let his disapproval be known in a rather messy manner. By the time she was done her manuscript was misspelled, yellowed, smudged with wombat-droppings, and every time she used the letter “E” it had to be written in by hand. The manuscript was so terrible looking, in fact, that it stood out amongst the other books in the slush pile (wannabe writers, do not attempt). Fortunately Ms. French is a superb writer, and through her ridiculous looking manuscript she was able to continue her career in writing. Because of this, or perhaps in spite of it, she has grown close to the wombat community, caring for the orphaned and injured ones, as well as the healthy and destructive. How to Scratch a Wombat explains every single aspect of a wombat existence. We learn about their burrows, intelligence, communication, aversion to direct sunlight, etc. Through observation, research, and personal recollections Ms. French also tells us about the wombats she has known. Everyone from Bad Bart the biter to Rikki, the wombat that couldn’t quite figure out why biting through someone’s wrist might be bad. Do not be surprised after reading this book if you find yourself in desperate need to see a wombat immediately. Ms. French will make you a convert. A list of Australian Words to Know with definitions alongside is available for easy reference.

When I was a child I remember watching a bluejay in a tree shouting a warning to the other birds in the neighborhood. My mother told me at the time that bluejays act as scouts for other creatures, but that surprisingly little is known about them. This fact stunned me. Until then I was fairly certain that all the animals that live beside humans have been studied, cataloged, and understood for years. It never occurred to me that there always has to be someone willing to sit down, observe, and get to know these animals before anything concrete can be written about them in books. And as authors go Jackie French is probably one of the foremost experts on all things wombat. It says a lot about a person when you consider the kinds of animals they choose to learn more about. And judging from the amount of wombat-related information in this book, Jackie French must be an infinitely interesting person.

There are many things your average American citizen does not know about wombats. For example, they are essentially little tanks of fur. Their heads are designed to butt up against objects so as to knock them down. They leave droppings at a rate that would make a Canadian goose jealous. They can be affectionate or hostile, depending on personalities. If you ate one, the wombat would, “taste disgusting – they are mostly bone and gristle – and their fur feels like a shaggy doormat.” Also, wombats belie the human belief that animals are genetically predisposed to be good at what they do. Wombats, you see, are lamentable engineers. Really. They spend much of their lives creating or redesigning burrows for themselves and they are just awful at it. The burrows often collapse or fill with water in some fashion. The wombat could probably learn something from the beaver, but it undoubtedly wouldn’t want to try.

Complementing Ms. French’s text are illustrations by Bruce Whatley. Some of the pictures in this book look as though they were taken from Diary of a Wombat. The image of a wombat wrestling and destroying a welcome mat would belong in this category. Other illustrations provide some informative back-up to the text. There is the image of the ancient six and a half foot tall wombat ancestor the Diprotodon optatum. There are maps of wombat locations and images of the hairy-nosed verses the common wombat. There are also realistic renderings of wombats in the wild alongside the more cartoony images of the picture book. You would think this pairing would jar with the reader, but in fact they work together rather well. I guess wombats are cute, no matter what the medium is. And a cute realism alongside cute imaginative pictures blends together well.

Amusingly the only other children’s book I know of that is wombat-centric is Elizabeth Honey’s very funny Don’t Pat the Wombat. The title appears to be in direct opposition to Ms. French’s new book, but I still think they’d pair mighty well together in a booktalk or display. Of course this title is ideal for those kids doing projects on Australian animals, but I think it’s a great read in general. Who isn’t going to get a kick out of hearing about the wombat so evil they named it Moriarty? Or the tale about the mother who evicted the baby in her pouch with no nonsense force? Even if the word “wombat” doesn’t conjure up much of any image in your mind, you have to love a book that knows how to make juvenile literature interesting, engaging, and never ever dull. Kudos to Ms. French for thinking up such a book. Lucky are the kids who will check it out and read it. 

On shelves February 16th.

Notes on the Title:  Considering that this book was adapted from the Australian edition entitled The Secret World of Wombats, I approve of this title change.  I don’t know quite why a "How To" book would gain my approval over a "Secret World" but it has.

Other Blog Reviews: orangedale


  • Today is Non-Fiction Monday, so be sure to head over to Simply Science for the round-up.
  • Publishers Weekly called the book "nifty" in their review.
  • Under the name The Secret World of Wombats this was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Awards: Patricia Wrightson Prize and shortlisted for the Wilderness Society’s non-fiction award.
  • If you still are unclear on exactly what a wombat looks like, perhaps these videos might help.

Here is a wombat, a sleepy female wombat, being cuddled on a lap.

Some evidence that they like to be scratched is found here:

And here. The text on this video reads, "Digger the wombat and her foster mother, Donna. Digger is almost ready to be released back into the Australian bush (wild). Note the ‘huff huff’ noises that she makes for Donna’s affection, but at the same time really wants to be aggressive and bite Donna (just like a teenager?). Digger will eventually become plain aggressive, which will give us a clear indication that she’s ready to be released."

And finally, a terrifying aggressive wombat here:

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.