How to Scratch a Wombat

11May10

Where to find it…what to feed it…why is sleeps all day

by Jackie French
illustrated by Bruce Whatley

Jackie French’s How to Scratch a Wombat is the non-fiction accompaniment to the picture book Diary of a Wombat. This non-fiction piece reveals insights in French’s journey to authorhood. French’s personal background is interesting as she has spent much of her life living among wombats (which initiated accidently) in Australia. Who better to write then than French to write them!

Like many other authors, we learn becoming a published writer was something that more-or-less serendipitously happened to French. Struggling to get by, and having been writing stories her entire life, she took the chance and sent a story called Rain Stones about an aboriginal man and his use of rain stones to resolve a drought. French reveals that her writing mechanics are weak, partially attributable to a learning impairment:”…and my spelling was terrible. I’m a very fast reader, but I’ve never been able to spell because I’m dyslexic – I have a learning disorder that affects how I see words. Still, it was the first story I’d written that hinted at the world I could picture in my mind’s eye.” (5) I think children and adults with learning impairments, or even those just struggle with spelling, would find it comforting to know that even a published author like French doesn’t have the perfect mechanics, but still could express her “mind’s eye” through writing.  This bad spelling was perceived as intentional by the publisher, who actually loved it and wanted more like it. Thus, Diary of a Wombat was born that told of the daily occurrences and antics of Mothball the wombat.
After her introductory author’s note and personal background with wombats, the rest of the book is sectioned into different types of information about wombats, including categories like: the history of wombats, wombat burrows, and wombat intelligence. In reading about wombats, I felt like some of French’s inclusions and descriptions of about wombats in heat, their mating practices, and the descriptions of their reproductive parts to be informative, but better suited for another book. As an accompaniment to Diary, I don’t think the child reader would have the background understanding of reproduction to even appreciate it’s inclusion, not to mention handle it maturely.

I much preferred sections like Wombat Communication that revealed facts that highlighted the unique characteristics of this animals. For instance, French details how wombats “talk” to each other “with their droppings and other smells.” Wombats even strategically select their food to influence the drop of droppings they produce. Some of the messages they can send include territory markers, as well as information on “which wombat left it, the wombat’s hormonal and emotional state, how old it is, and possibly – probably – many other things that I just don’t have sufficient wombat intelligence to work out.” I like that French admits to these holes in our understandings of animals.

All-in-all, I think French’s How to Scratch a Wombat ups the ante by demonstrating that non-fiction and informative writing can still contain entertainment qualities.

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