Wombat underground: A wildfire survival story by Sarah L. Thomson. Illus. by Charles Santoso

cover image
The story of animals sharing a wombat’s burrow to escape a bushfire has reached the ears of US author, Sarah Thomson. Intrigued with the idea she has built a story to present to children for whom Australian animals are very different and has produced a charming picture book sure to be loved by all who read it. 
Now living in Sydney, artist, Santoso loves drawing little things and the illustrations in this book showcase his close observation of the Australian bush and its creatures. Readers will readily understand how the wombat can build such deep burrows when spying the long claws on the cover, and seeing it sleeping in its burrow, claws prominently displayed. The illustrations reveal a whole range of Australian animals, framed within the bush they live in, looking for a place of refuge when the sky turns red with flames. The immediate impact of the bushfire is comprehended by the animals and the readers as they realise there is no place to hide, nowhere to run, finding refuge with the wombat when all seems lost. 
The text reveals the wallaby and echidna nibbling at the grass, the skink soaking up the heat from the sun’s rays. But as it get hotter, the water dries up, the skink needs to find shade and the grass becomes brittle.
Suddenly lightning ignites a wildfire. Flames and hot winds cause the animals to run towards the hole in the hill, where wombat sleeps on, unconcerned. The animals arrive at the entrance, and wombat initially bares his teeth and readies his claws defensively. But seeing the state of the animals blistered, burnt and with stinging eyes, he relents offering them his shelter. There they take cover through the night. Safe from the flames. 
At the end of the book are two pages abut Australian bushfires, how they start and the destruction they cause, and while talking about something so specific, the wider message is one of offering refuge to those in need, putting aside differences and history, being ready to help in times of crisis. It is a lesson we can all digest, ponder and discuss, particularly in the classroom, where some children may be refugees and others from families who have come to Australia because of flashpoints in their own countries. 
The illustrations describe the Australian bush in detail. Younger readers will delight picking out the animals they can see, recognising plants and terrain, seeing the way a bushfire takes hold and destroys - causing them to think back to the images they have seen recently on television when bushfires had seemed to be raging across Australia. 
A number of other books on fire in Australia have been recently published and an astute teacher or parent will gather them all to discuss what lessons can be learnt. (Fire (2014) Jackie French, Spark (2016) Adam Wallace, Where there’s smoke (2019) Phil Cummings to name a few.) Teaching notes are available.

Themes: Bush fires, Wildfires, Australian animals, Wombats, Refugees, Shelter.

Fran Knight