The Muddle-Headed Wombat by Ruth Park with illustrations by Noela Young
Published by Angus & Robertson
This Australian children’s classic is an utterly delightful tale of a wombat and his adventures with Mouse and Tabby, his second-best friend. The animals live in a little house at the edge of Big Bush which is “green and quiet and airy, and the right place for animals to live.” They go to school, visit the circus, have holidays by the sea and build a treehouse that collapses in a storm. Frequent squabbles punctuate their escapades, as they have many differences, but they always make up as they realise the value of friendship.
Wombat is muddle-headed because he is a Wombat. He mixes up words and can’t count past four – “He runs out of paws, that’s the trouble” – but he likes to be helpful although his favoured solution to a problem is to sit on things. He is thrilled to be going to school where “We’re going to learn things like four and eight make eleventy one and C O W spells cat, and things like that.” Similar to Pooh Bear he is not bright although he has inimitable logic, such as when he eats a packet of chalk but not the green because “it might taste like spinach and I don’t like spinach.” He is good at digging and seeing in the dark and is very loyal and loves his friends, which in turn makes him loveable.
Mouse is fastidious and house proud, always cleaning things, preparing meals (pancakes for Tabby; snails for Wombat; and mosquitoes for itself) and polishing its spectacles. Referred to throughout as ‘it’, Mouse is gender neutral, although this was written in 1962 and Mouse carries its long tail “over its arm as though it were the train on an evening dress” so is possibly meant to be female. Mouse is also sentimental and cares for things and people, particularly the grey tabby cat whom it adopts because “He was skinny and miserable and he had a peaky little face with big ears. He wore a bright red bow tie, but anyone could see it hadn’t been washed and ironed for weeks.”
Like many cats, Tabby is vain and thinks he is handsome, while he also claims to be frail and delicate, mainly to get out of hard work. He is very good at building things, however, such as a caravan and a treehouse and is also remarkably resilient, surviving being sucked into a carpet cleaner, dropped from a great height while performing as a puppet, and accidentally shaken into a stream, not to mention being sat on by Wombat who thinks “if he were sat on once or twice, and flattened out like a bookmark, it would do him the world of good.”
Noela Young’s charming illustrations add to the humour of the stories and caricature the animals highlighting their best and worst traits. They regard themselves as a family and they constantly attempt to adapt to living with each other while retaining their individuality. The tales are equally diverting and reassuring and were loved by both the adults and the children at holiday story-time.