Why Jackie French writes about wombats

Jackie French with artist Bruce Whatley, the illustrator of her award-winning picture book series that began with Diary of a Wombat. Photo: Jeffrey ChanJackie French can’t walk outside her front door at night without tripping over wombats. Her home, a property nestled among national parks near Braidwood in the southern tablelands of NSW, is a sanctuary for wildlife.

French, 62, is Relax’s gardening columnist and is one of Australia’s most successful children’s authors, having written more than 140 books that include picture books, history, fantasy and historical fiction. But she has also been a conservationist most of her life and written scores of books on gardening, ecology and animals.

Now the current Children’s Laureate, whose job is to encourage reading, French was also recently appointed ambassador for My Story, a project that gives schoolchildren in western Sydney the opportunity to publish stories about their lives online. Launched by the Children’s Festival of Moving Stories, it was presented during November by the Sydney Writers Festival.

French’s most popular books are the award-winning picture book series illustrated by Bruce Whatley that began in 2002 with Diary of a Wombat. She has been studying wombats for more than 40 years and is a director of the Wombat Foundation and patron of the the Wombat Protection Society of Australia.

Her latest picture book, Wombat Wins, follows the escapades of Mothball, a wombat who stumbles upon a school athletics carnival while searching for carrots. Like all French’s wombat stories, Wombat Wins focuses on the unique relationship between human beings and the dozy little marsupial.

“The human and the wombat never connect,” French says. “They are entirely and completely at cross purposes, and yet they co-exist, with great enjoyment on both sides. That is the reason I am fascinated with wombats.”

French and her husband Bryan Sullivan have converted 93 per cent of their property into a wildlife refuge and are on first-name terms with most of the animals that visit them. It is a rugged habitat that allows rock wallabies to survive because, French says, no hunters can reach the area. Her website includes gardening tips and images of some of her favourite animals including the wombats Fudge and Rickie and the rock wallabies Emily and Bounce.

Wombats are very intelligent, French says, citing the example of an injured wombat called Clever Cloggs that was rescued by former Treasury chief Ken Henry: “Clever Cloggs had never had contact with humans before yet learnt how to drag a box over to a chair, climb onto the chair up to a window ledge, then chew through the window and dive out.”

French’s family come from Braidwood but she grew up in Brisbane after her “very Catholic grandfather married my very Presbyterian grandmother” and were disowned by their parents. When French was 20 she returned to the area and never left.

Her first book, Rain Stones, a collection of short stories, was published in 1991. “When I was young people told me you can never make it as a writer in Australia, so it wasn’t until my early 30s when I was desperately broke that I sent a book off to a publisher,” she says.

At the time, French was living in a tin shed with Smudge and a black snake named Gladys. An amused editor selected the story from a slush pile because of French’s poor spelling and because Smudge had left droppings on French’s typewriter so that the “e” didn’t work. Rain Stones was eventually shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Children’s Book Council Awards.

Since being appointed in the biennial role of Children’s Laureate last year French says she has been thinking a lot about why she writes.

“I hadn’t realised that subconsciously I have been writing with a purpose – to explain the world to the reader,” she says. “I think the job of a writer is a bit like a window cleaner. Once readers finish a book they should see the world more clearly. They should see the things they hadn’t noticed before.”

Wombat Wins, by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley. HarperCollins, $24.99.

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