Book review: Happy Birthday Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

Happy Birthday Wombat was our first foray into the Australian picture book series by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, which began in 2002 with the award-winning Diary of a Wombat.

I’ll confess that at first read I thought this book was rather odd, and I couldn’t quite understand E’s love for it. 

It took several read-throughs before it dawned on me – it’s the Ulysses of children’s books. Like Ulysses, it’s a daring experiment in narrative style which aims to push literary boundaries. James Joyce’s seminal work of modernism was controversial in its time. HBW has cunningly sidestepped such divisiveness by aiming at an under-five audience still grappling with literary criticism and perhaps not even au fait with the great debate on modernism vs realism in literature. 

HBW is told from the wombat’s point of view, and there’s little anthropomorphising here. This is an unreconstructed wombat, whose existence revolves around food, sleep, and digging holes. (Insert your own off-colour joke here about men/politicians/etc as you wish.) The language is simplistic and consists mostly of verbs – as appropriate for babies as it is for wombats. As with Ulysses, much of the meaning is found in the liminal spaces between the words, and in this case the pictures. On the textual level, the story is of the wombat’s day and his battle with mysterious foes. The illustrations tell a different story, of the wombat’s rampant destruction of a little girl’s birthday party. This irony, and the playfulness of the word choice throughout, lends the book a laconic tone. I’m sure there are plenty of novels written for adults which lack such sophisticated nuance. 

The illustrations are simple and charming, with one slight caveat. A fuzzy halo of red and blue surrounds each of the pictures.  Once you notice it it’s all you can see and I’m not sure what the intent was, other than contributing to the psychedelic feeling of the whole.

(Pages are in fact white and not yellow. My lighting here left a lot to be desired.)

Despite studying Joyce at university, there’s a lot about his work I don’t understand. I worry I’m also missing the point with Happy Birthday Wombat. My sympathies are with the little girl whose birthday cake is eaten and bouncy castle deflated, rather than with the eponymous wombat. E adores it though and laughs gleefully as the wombat pops balloons. 

There’s an added bonus to reading this one in the UK; it seems as fantastically whimsical to me as a tale of a unicorn invading a birthday party would. Maybe it is. I have only vague notions about wombats and their reality. That’s ok though; the average Dublin housewife of 1904 had, I imagine, little in common with Molly Bloom, yet her character was heralded as a triumph. I confess I had rarely considered the day-to-day of a wombat before reading this story and now I’m determined to stay forever uninformed. 

The completionist in me feels anxious though to go back to the start of the series. Just as Ulysses stands as discrete chapters but can only be understood completely as a whole, perhaps it is also so with the wombat oeuvre. I’m going to have to read them all to find out. 

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