The Coconuts. Mum gave us that name one sunny day, rattling along all squashed up into our old bomb.
'I've got a love-er-ly bunch of coconuts,' she sang at the top of her voice.
So now you know what Mum's like.
We aren't an exclusive club or anything, we've just been friends for a long time.
I made friends with Worms at pre-school, except in those days he was called Dear Little Michael. He'll be friends with anybody. Then there's Nicko. Real name: David Nicholson. Nicko is the storyman. Nicko lives near us, and he stayed with us for a whole month when his parents visited his gran in Canada.
Mitch. Real name: Fawkner A.* Mitchell. Rich Mitch. *He won't tell us what the A stands for. His hair cuts cost $90 and his Nike Air Max 3 cost over $200 in America. He came to our school in grade two, I think. I remember how he looked because his clothes were so new. Then he wasn't in my class again until grade five. He has changed. He's much better. He doesn't always have to have everything, and be best and first all the time. He still does have everything, and can be a pain, but he can also be wickedly funny. His mum does his projects.
Azza is very simple. Real name: Mario Azzami. I think he hatched out of a basketball. We love basketball. He lives basketball. He always has a ball in his hand boing…boing…boing…boing… boing…bouncing it off a seat, door, fire hydrant, tree, pedestrian, he doesn't have to look when he bounces. And if he's not bouncing a basketball he's throwing a stick, a rock or something. He's also fantastic a sound effects, which adults describe as 'annoying noises'.
Then there's me, Mark Ryder. Nickname: Exclamation Mark. No prize for guessing why!!!!!!!! Most Unimproved Player of the Year (but best writer!).
So now you know what we're like. We muck around together and stay at each other's houses and stuff. At school we're the funny ones. If Miss Cappelli wants someone to do something crazy, she picks one of us. In the Cinderella assembly, we were all ugly sisters.
The along comes Jonah.
Mitch didn't like Jonah much, which is funny because for a long time Mitch didn't fit in very well either.
There's another person you need to know about. Introducing MR BRIAN CROMWELL, otherwise known as Crom the Bomb, or simply The Bomb. Mr Cromwell became a teacher so he could be bossy and mean. He should have gone into the army. Occasionally he is OK. I heard he was nice for a day back in 1876. But school camp was coming up and camp was going to be a totally Bomb-free zone.
For camp you have to label everything.
I said, 'The only thing that's not labelled that's going on camp is me.'
'With any luck you'll get lost,' said my ugly bother Adrian.
Mum and me crammed all my camp stuff into our big black bag.
'Adrian, leave my Venus Fly Trap alone. And don't go forcing flies into its mouths, you'll give it indigestion. Mum, don't let him touch it.'
Then Jude from next door came in. She and Mum had a cup of coffee while I looked for my other thong.
Jude asked, 'How's Jonah?'
Now both of them are going research, I thought.
'Well, he says his jacket if made out of sixteen plastic drink bottles,' I said.
'I've got some more on our Brian Cromwell,' said Jude. (Now he's our Brian Cromwell!) Jude leaned forward. 'It's actually quite shocking. He was teaching archery and a kid shot an arrow into his foot! Can you imagine!'
'Oh, poor man. Wouldn't you just die!' said Mum.
'Did he kill the kid?' asked Adrian.
'No,' I said, 'but he's getting back at every kid ever since.'
'We didn't arrow him in the foot,' said Adrian.
'We would if we could,' I said.
'Don't be silly,' said Mum.
'Why didn't he give up teaching?' said Adrian.
'Like getting back on the horse after you've fallen off. Now we know why he walks funny,' I said.
'That's not a strong enough reason for his behaviour, said Jude. 'There's got to be more to it than that.'
Two great school camps
Our kids went to Hawthorn West Primary School, and this school is at the heart of Wombat. As a volunteer for five school camps I was ‘embedded’ as they say. Two particularly wonderful school camps became the setting for the story — Camp Reefton, an outdoor adventure kind of camp, with archery, abseiling, canoeing and death defying feats, and Taggerty Pioneer Camp, run by the extraordinary Bronwyn Rainer, on whom I based the character of Mary. The school chose to revisit these two camps, so I was a parent-volunteer twice, at both camps. How lucky can you be?
Reality with a large helping of imagination
Meatloaf, the enormous pumpkin was real, but his size is exaggerated. Meatloaf was chopped up and became pumpkin soup, bubbling in a pot, while someone read from War Horse, but it wasn’t Lisa, it was actually the author of the book, English writer Michael Morpurgo. He was visiting because he’s interested in kids in the country. In the UK he’s involved in Farms for City Children. He had asked his publishers if he could visit a farm or wildlife school camp and they took him to Taggerty — what a co-incidence. I sent him these photos and a copy of Wombat.
The book was launched at Hawthorn West school assembly in the church hall, with special guests who had helped with the book. Then it was out to the lawn to send the book out into the world. We attached it to a big yellow balloon, then let it go, and watched it float up into the sky. Unfortunately it didn’t go far. It was picked up a few streets away.
Bronwyn, has a great empathy for animals. She was able to get the young wombats to return to the bush. She taught us stick-and-spud spinning and building with wattle and daub, just like Mary in the book. They were the most wonderful school camps in the bush. It pleases me to think that children on the other side of the world can enjoy them too.
Those funny drawings
Wombat is the only book I didn’t illustrate myself. I tried, but my drawings always looked like they were done by an adult trying to draw like a kid. Our son was drawing hilarious stuff at the time, so with Rosalind’s go-ahead, he got the job. It was like a school project, it took time, but he just seemed to toss off the drawings, and I still love them.
Here we go again!
Every time I went on school camp I'd read what I'd written so far and look to see how I could weave it all into one story. The writing went in bursts over several years, as with all my books; then I tested it on reliable readers who told me exactly what they thought. After she had read it, our daughter said "sit down, Mum" and then she said "I don't think it's very funny". I was taken aback. Then I redoubled my efforts, determined to make it funnier. In hindsight I'm grateful for her honesty.
I’ll never forget the hike from Camp Reefton to the gold mine. It began in a light mist and ended in drizzling rain, with everyone covered in leeches. Some kids nearly lost it. As soon as we were home, clean and dry, I sat on the edge of my bunk and wrote about the hike. It became chapter 25, but that was the first piece of writing.
Questions from Germany
I received a fax from Heike Brandt in Berlin who was translating Wombat into German and wanted to clarify what some words meant. I could tell from her guesses that she had a great sense of humour. Travelling in Europe a few years later, Heike and her partner Gila invited us for a meal. It was as if we had always been friends. Since then we've had many adventures and written a book together, 'To The Boy in Berlin'.