Nov 11, 2022

Meet WOMBAT, My New Best Friend!

 Think about the wombats you've met. 

What, you've never met a wombat? 

Truth be told, the only ones I've "met" have been in the pages of picture books and nonfiction books for young readers. There are some remarkable wombats in those pages, and I consider several of them "friends". 


But then I got my hands on the very recent picture book release, WOMBAT SAID COME IN, written by the incredibly talented Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by the visual-narrative master storyteller Brian Lies.

Regular readers may notice that this is NOT nonfiction, which I've been immersed in since October as a Cybils Awards panelist in that category. I considered saving this post until late December when that process ends. 


Once. Twice. A half dozen times. 

I read the story first, noticing its serious subject matter  (an Australian wildfire forces animals to seek refuge). There's certainly nonfiction truth in that situation, truth that's likely (sadly) to occur again many times in the future. 

I read for craft next, a delightful narrative that uses prose storytelling with a rhyming refrain throughout. I was quickly chiming in at each repetition of the irresistible lines, as any young audiences will no doubt do. That includes reading the refrain with nuanced tone and attitude as the story progresses.

 That emotional nuance was my next focus in reading. These are anthropomorphized animal characters, Australian critters whose voices and patterns reflect their zoological and habitat realities. Each, though, (wombat, of course, and wallaby, kookaburra, platypus, koala, and sugar glider) reveals personality and behaviors that provide layers of humor and tension. Their behaviors and conversations  also reflect deeply universal feelings, responses, and complexities within families and friendships, ones that apply far beyond these specific animals and this situation. 

Finally I read the text once more, trying (unsuccessfully) to block out the remarkable illustrations that offer a complementary visual narrative that expands, enriches, and informs readers of the heart and the facts of this story. Eventually I resorted to typing the text and reading it separately for a last admiring look at how wonderfully it is written. 

Then, I dove deeply into the illustrations multiple times. In readings above I allowed the color tones, expressive faces, rich scenes, and lively actions to enhance the story as told by text. It was time to examine each page and spread closely, noting the choice and placement of the perfectly suited details to draw the audiences into the underground Australian life of WOMBAT. From the cover (look at that cover again, please!) anyone will recognize the artistic talent, skill. and affection Lies has for animal characters. Fans of his BATS books, MORE, and THE ROUGH PATCH will be pleased to meet this new collection of animal friends. 

Wombat's glance over his shoulder at his front door invites the reader to come right in to the story. End papers deserve more than a glance, opening with various paw/claw prints approaching Wombats welcome mat. The closing end papers suggest those same tracks walking away from the welcome mat, a gloriously subtle open and close to this story. A slightly ominous eye peeking out from a postal slot is followed by an inset image of a steaming mug (etched with an Australian bottle tree?) and a plate of cookies on the copyright page. There, a dedication from Deedy honors those who welcome refugees while the dedication from Lies celebrates friends who are masters of hospitality. The opening double spread after the title page reveals wombat in his comfortably decorated and maintained underground home, mug and plate in hand: A cozy light, bookcase, and furniture reassure us that the scorched and barren earth above ground is troubling, but not a threat to him. 

Before that page turns, a cry for help is heard, and wombat finds wallaby at his door, begging for refuge. Use your imagination for now to picture additional critters seeking aid from a friend, met each time by "Wombat said, "Come in!" then a rhymed refrain. Along the way the visual details are irresistible, including a cassowary (native bird) tea cozy, an Adelaide mug, a comfy chair with structural elements reminiscent of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, outback and fancy dress hats, and assorted Aussie-labeled open food containers. Wombat's country-style clothing suit him to a tee, though the portrait on his wall suggests he comes from more formal ancestry. 

These are only a few of the mindfully chosen, artfully rendered, and carefully situated details within the story that suggest Wombat's diminishing patience but bottomless wealth of goodwill and welcome, despite the many strains his "guests" impose. Every well-constructed story needs a satisfying conclusion, often followed by a bit of a surprise or twist. This new picture book provides those generously, in text and images. I won't spoil your reading with more than I've already provided, but you will ruin my day entirely if I've failed to get you to click a library hold or make a purchase to read and share this book.

Now I return to my nonfiction reading and assessments, but I intend to keep this book at hand for at least a few more weeks. Each time I crack the covers, or even glance at the front or back views, I smile and want to peruse it again. Wombat represents to me the better part of our nature, and certainly the aspects of my own nature that I need to nurture and practice more consistently. Welcoming those in need to share what we have, to recognize myself in their need, allows me to imagine myself having Wombat's heart. That's a goal worthy of my attention and effort. Yours, too?

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