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Dennis Lee

If Food be the Music of Poetry, Play On

by Leacy O'Brien

Volume 20 Number 3
1992 May

Regular contributor Leacy O'Brien introduces us to Dennis Lee, the man who brought you variations on a theme-Alligator Pie, Jelly Belly, Garbage Delight(?), The Ice Cream Store- a gourmet among poets. Kids just eat him up!

For a poet who had decided in 1983 that he "didn't want to write any more for kids," Dennis Lee looks remarkably comfortable when he settles in to read from The Ice Cream Store, his newest book of poetry for children. And the rapt attention that young audiences accord this much-honoured poet would indicate that his recent return to the world of children's literature is as happy an event for readers as it is for the writer.

Lee toured Canada last November to introduce The Ice Cream Store, the first title from HarperCollins' newly created Alligator Press imprint. I caught up with Dennis Lee at Glen Ogilvie Public School in Blackburn Hamlet, a suburb of Ottawa, as he read to a library full of excited young fans. The mutual admiration between Lee and his readers was evident the minute he walked into the room, where he was greeted in poetry by a beaming audience of Primary students. For the next thirty minutes, the students belonged to Dennis Lee-- rollicking and snapping their fingers to the rhythm of "The Perfect Pets" and the classic "Alligator Pie," subdued and serious in response to the introspective mood of "The Secret Place," and uninhibitedly curious about the poet's life and work during the question-and-answer session.

In a brief interview, sandwiched between two school readings, a bookstore autographing session and a dinner meeting with local teacher-librarians, Lee reflected on his return to the world of children's literature. After the publication of Jelly Belly in 1983, he had decided "not to write anymore for kids, but about 1986, the poems just started coming through." The poems are organized to reflect "a threading between the goofy and the introspective" that simulates "the rituals of a child's life from beginning of the day to the end."

Drawing from his own experience as a parent who learned that children need the calming ritual of a bedtime story at day's end "to help the world slow down and get in touch with what's going on inside their head," Lee punctuates the whimsical humour of action poems like "Goof on the Roof" and 'The Pig in Pink Pajamas" with the soothing verses of "I Know it's Time" and "Cool Pillow," because "kids today, despite a superficial sophistication created by the march of TV and video games, still have the same vulnerabilities, fears and strengths," to which the more introspective poetry responds.

Lee notes that he rarely does classroom and library readings ... because he enjoys it so much he would do it regularly, and have little time to write. His sensitivity to children and his genuine pleasure in their company was obvious throughout the session at Glen Ogilvie and in the unhurried and patient approach to the autographing session that followed his reading.

In his early works, Lee strove to give his young readers a sense of their identity as Canadians by creating absurd rhymes that played with the names of Canadian towns and cities. In The Ice Cream Store, Lee says he wanted "without preaching or adult moralizing" to share with his readers his excitement over the huge shifts in the ethnic diversity of the Canadian population through new poems that reflect the country's multicultural flavour. And so "Chica from Costa Rica" and "Stinky from Helsinki" join the Kitsilano kid in "the dance of Canadian place names" that Lee first choreographed in Alligator Pie. Adding to the fun of the new "Canadian content" are David McPhail's illustrations, a clever mix of realistic children and fantasy creatures that clearly delight Lee every time he opens the book.

Despite his earlier decision to leave children's poetry behind, it looks as though Dennis Lee is now happily resigned to a continuing role in publishing for young people as the newly appointed consulting editor to HarperCollins' new Alligator Press imprint. And if history repeats itself, perhaps one day more poems will "just start coming through."

Books by Dennis Lee

Alligator Pie. Illustrated by Frank Newfeld. Macmillan, 1974.

Garbage Delight. Illustrated by Frank Newfeld. Macmillan, 1983.

The Ice Cream Store. Illustrated by David McPhail. HarperCollins, 1991.

Jelly Belly. Illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. Macmillan, 1983.

Nicholas Knock and Other People. Illustrated by Frank Newfeld. Macmillan, 1974.

The Ordinary Bath. Illustrated by Jon McKee. McClelland & Stewart, 1979.

Leacy O'Brien is Director of Membership Services at the Canadian Library Association. Her previous writing credits for CM include profiles of author/illustrators Werner Zimmermann and Marie-Louise Gay and of Adele Fasick, dean of Library and Information Science at the University of Toronto, children's author, and reviewer for CM.

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