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Authors who write books for very young children often get dismissed, almost out of hand. What can it take to write enough words for a 32-page picture book? they'll ask. How much skill? How much talent? How much time? And if someone asks this sort of question, they've obviously never met Dennis Lee.
An inhabitant of the Toronto literary scene for over three decades, Lee is best known for Alligator Pie, the well-loved picture book from which three generations of Canadian children have grown up chanting. And although he's less popularly known for his writing for adults, Lee has done more than his share of thoughtful essay and poetry writing. Enough, at least, that he was awarded the Governor General's award in 1972 for Civil Elegies of the Gods and CanLit courses have been taught in his name.
Not surprisingly, Lee became interested in children's books when his own children -- now grown -- were small and he decided that "Mother Goose was an imperialistic conspiracy and I had this profound cosmological insight with it: That it was all a plot to infiltrate the brain boxes of two-and-a-half year olds and make us think we lived somewhere else and that our own time and place had no right to be played upon by the imagination."
Anyone who has had even the slightest encounter with Lee's work will understand that the above quote is irony-tinged by the author's own cheerfully askew take on the world around him. In the main, Lee's books for children consist of poems -- sometimes almost limericks -- forged together by a loose theme. For example, his most recent book, Bubblegum Delicious, is inhabited by a charming young boy, his equally charming dog and a cast of vaguely psychedelic bugs who seem to take turns chanting Lee's poems while visiting the enchanting places that illustrator David McPhail has created for them.
The sun upon a spider's web
In most of his children's books, Lee says that he's tried "to cover a wide spectrum of some story poems, a couple of joke poems, some really tender lullaby poems and each book will have one or two, maybe three that have that kind of up-yours feeling to it."
Bugs and beetles, don't be late,
Lee describes these latter poems as "subversive nasty little subliminals" and in Bubblegum Delicious they're given a whimsical and almost hidden treatment. It's possible to skim the book without noticing them and then, on a second pass, see the small print inside a drum or waving through the margins. Lee says that "some are darker, some are very rude. I think of them as the kind of thing you'd find kids chanting in the school yard."
Rude, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but there's nothing in Bubblegum Delicious that should get the book banned. Although you never know: Lee's Lizzie's Lion was banned in one place, says the author, on the grounds that it promoted cannibalism. Although the cannibalism in question involved a protective lion downing a human robber. And the devouring in question, says Lee, occurred entirely off-screen. "The only thing it would promote cannibalism among would be lions, if you think about it. It would turn them into carnivores: imagine!"
Dennis Lee lives in Toronto with his wife, Susan Perly, whose first novel Lee is quick to plug. "It's coming out [this] spring," says the proud spouse. "It's called Love Street, an absolute humdinger. I'll be intrigued to see what happens with it, because people either fall completely in love with it or say: What on earth is this? I've never seen anything like it. It's a beauty."
Linda Richards: How many books have you written?
Dennis Lee: That's a good question. I don't even know the answer. It's a little bit hard to say because some of my books have been kind of mixed and matched. Like, the first book was Wiggle to the Laundromat. But then one poem disappeared into Alligator Pie. So do you call those two different books? But altogether it's probably 20 or 25 now.
When was the first book?
My very first was a wretched book of poetry which I hope you never find. It was called Kingdom of Absence which came out in 1967. The best thing about it is probably the title and also the cover, which was a reproduction of a painting. It was the first book of Anansi [Press]. And we didn't know how to spell "Anansi" so it was spelled with an "e" at the end. The guy who ran Anansi and whose idea it was to publish this manuscript -- he was another writer, Dave Godfrey, he ran the writing department at UVic (the University of Victoria) for quite a while. We weren't going to call [the publishing company] anything, but then at the last minute we thought: Well, to make it sound like a real publishing house we'd better call it something. And we floundered around like the garage band that doesn't know if it's going to the Thunderheads or the Snotballs.
But it was the garage band era of publishing, wasn't it?
It was. David had taught for two years in Ghana and had heard the legends of Anansi, of which I knew nothing at all. He told me it was a trickster god who creates the world and then kind of degenerates into being a prankster. So that sounded reasonable enough. We didn't know if we'd only publish one book.
We called it "Ananse" because we didn't know how to spell it: he'd only heard the name. So on the spine and title page of the first printing of the first book published by Anansi, you'll find [the company's name] spelled differently than all the rest of them.
So someone said: Hey! You spelled it wrong?
I think so. And, also, the stories are current in the Caribbean. In fact, Anansi is quite a well known figure and the normal spelling is with an "i," although, obviously, it comes out of an oral culture to begin with. So we rather sheepishly changed the "e" to an "i" on the next printing.
Anansi is still around, isn't it?
Yes. It kind of went into remission during much of the 1980s. Mostly they were just keeping the backlist in print and there were a lot of really terrific books by then that Anansi had done. And then Stoddart bought it and regenerated it and it's now an imprint within Stoddart, but they've started doing original publishing again, of an adventurous kind, actually.
You don't have an involvement with them?
No. [Although] I published a book with them -- a book of essays called Body Music -- about two years ago.
You are still writing for older audiences -- adults -- as well?
I've gone on playing the field that way all the way through. I wrote adult stuff before I wrote children's things. When I published Alligator Pie especially I was really nervous because most of what I'd written up until then... my first book really was not a classic for the ages so I was still finding my feet. I guess when Wiggle to the Laundromat came out -- that was 1970 -- an artist called Charlie Proctor came in and took a cross-section out of the manuscript that I was working on. He took a dozen poems or so and made a book out of them. And I was very nervous because there were poets my own age who were doing much better work than I was at that point -- Atwood and Ondaatje, Gwen MacEwen -- so I was fighting for space as an adult poet myself. And I thought: If I bring out these things that rhyme and have metrical rhythm and regular stanza form and everything, I'm going to be out on the street. You know: I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree. That kind of greeting card verse. When [the books] came out that didn't happen at all. Poets would tell me that they read them to their children at night.
Has Alligator Pie been your biggest seller so far?
Yes, apart from, Wiggle to the Laundromat, which was done by a small press. I worked with Jim Henson for a while on a show called Fraggle Rock and I remember him saying to me one time: If something is very successful first then it will always be the one that sticks in people's minds. He found that, I think, with the Muppet movies.
What did you do on Fraggle Rock?
I did the song lyrics. Another guy did the tunes.
When did Alligator Pie come out?
1974. Over a quarter century ago, my dear.
Maybe long enough now for a couple of generations of kids to have enjoyed them.
I certainly see people who say to me: I read this as a child. I'm not sure if there's been a third generation yet or not, but there will be soon enough.
When you started writing children's books were you telling your stories to your own kids?
I started off when Kevyn, my first daughter, was two-and-a-half and my daughter Hillary was new born. We would be doing Mother Goose at night -- obviously with Kevyn especially. All of this stuff started dancing into my head and I realized that Mother Goose was an imperialistic conspiracy and I had this profound cosmological insight with it: That it was all a plot to infiltrate the brain boxes of two-and-a-half years olds and make us think we lived somewhere else and that our own time and place had no right to be played upon by the imagination.
Fired by this cosmological insight I began scribbling things down. I'm teasing a bit when I say that, I love Mother Goose and I love stuff from abroad with a passion, but when I grew up basically the idea was that that was all there was and nothing could come from our own imagination here. So I wanted to fool around with that and the easiest way was to play with place names, initially. Some of them have such a magical incantatory feeling to them. Alligator Pie has a lot of poems that dance around with that.
I remember reading a lovely little lyric that I found in an anthology by a New Zealand poet and I didn't know anything about the place or... how did it go? "At Plimerton, at Plimerton the little penguins play. And one dead albatross was found at Carahana Bay." And I had no idea where Plimerton was. I had no idea where Carahana Bay was. But I could see that he'd gotten the place names around where he was just dancing with the penguins and the albatross. And I thought: Oh my God, that is quite exciting. I wonder if you could do that somewhere else, too? I'm not sure if that was the original point, but it was seeing somebody writing that kind of lyric in a place that was not used to doing it. And in New Zealand obviously they too would have been grown up accustomed to the British ones.
Are a lot of your books place name driven?
Well, for a few of them I did sit down with the atlas because I was running out of my own resources. But then at a certain point I did stop doing it as much because I would have just been trying to repeat what I was doing [earlier]. You know, the thrill of discovering something is great, but if it starts to turn into a formula then... that's what happened to Frank Baum who wrote the Oz books. We still cherish the first one, but he wrote about 16 of them and they got more and more threadbare. But he was paying the rent and they were making him rich and he went on churning the things out. I don't want to do that, so if I don't find some new challenge to something I have been doing then I try to let that stand.
What was the new challenge in Bubblegum Delicious?
There were two things in particular there that I was having fun with. One was the idea of having a kind of light story line go all the way through. Fairly early on I started thinking of having a central character -- the little boy and his best friend the dog. And really the story line isn't too much more than what happens if you're that age and you wake up in the morning and you say: Today I'm going to see a toad or maybe it'll be a dump truck. It's sort of the adventures of exploring a world that's still brand new to you. And then the gently suggested thing at the end of losing a friend and then the friend coming back. So it's more an emotional sort of thread than anything else.
I'd played with something before that was made up of individual poems but that gave you that sense of continuity. And, of course, [illustrator] David McPhail kind of ran with it and introduced all kinds of new characters that aren't even in the poems. That was one of the two things. The other was this idea of folding in the subversive, nasty little subliminals. Some are darker, some are very rude. I think of them as the kind of thing you'd find kids chanting in the school yard. And a number of the main ones get quite pensive or inward or musing. Some of them are also rambunctious. But the coloration of the main ones is more at that end of the spectrum than some of the kids' things I've done. So I thought of playing with a counterpoint between these little quatrains that are darker or more up-yours and honoring that impulse in ourselves. The counterpoint of the two I thought was something that would be fun to play with. And I liked the idea of sort of having a foreground/background thing happening.
[Reading from Bubblegum Delicious]
Do you get letters when you do stuff like that?
It's funny, the earlier books have all had... a book might have 35 or 40 poems. And I've tried to cover a wide spectrum of some story poems, a couple of joke poems, some really tender lullaby poems and each book will have one or two, maybe three that have that kind of up-yours feeling to it. And they're the ones that, inevitably, adults especially sort of glom onto. And they seem to think that's the only thing in the book. I can understand why, in a sense, because they do kind of jump out. But really, I've tried to spend quite a bit of time trying to orchestrate all those different moods and modes and feelings into the book. One of the books, actually, was banned. Lizzie's Lion -- I can't remember if it was banned in Alberta or California, but someplace it was banned -- on the excellent grounds [his voice takes on an ironic tone] that it promoted cannibalism.
Which we're all prone to. [More irony.]
Yes, indeed. Just pushed over the edge to go and eat... I don't know if you know Lizzie's Lion, but it's actually a book about standing up to bullies. It's a little story poem that was made into a 24 or 32-page book. The little girl has a lion that she has in her bedroom and one night a robber comes to liberate her piggybank or something so the lion gets up -- and he doesn't know the lion's secret name, which in fact is "Lion" -- so he gets totally consumed. When I was writing that I was thinking of the lion as some part of a person who is feeling bullied. The part you might be able to tap into in order to have the guts to stand up to the bully. But I discovered after I published it that it [was feared] it would give children nightmares. The only people it seems to have given nightmares to is adults. Kids all know that it's a kind of cartoon. They quite understood. And there's no violence actually shown. This thing, which I really wasn't ready for, it could not be allowed into the schools in the province or state because people would have inevitably gone out and become raging cannibals.
The only thing it would promote cannibalism among would be lions, if you think about it. It would turn them into carnivores: imagine!
Because it wasn't about people eating people, which is certainly my understanding of cannibalism.
But where does it stop? It's just not just the right banning books anymore, it's the left, too.
Oh yeah: the correctness thing.
But it's banning a book. I don't know, there are sure books that I think we'd be better off without on this planet but you can't just go around banning books, because where do you stop?
It's a tricky one. It really is. I certainly think there are some books that [don't have a place] in school libraries. In some schools there would be a very responsible discussion of what [should be there]. It really is hard. Even as somebody who gets banned at times, I think the notion that all censorship is wrong on all occasions -- crying "fire" in a crowded theater. Why should we censor someone who wants to stand up and say "Fire! Fire!" when there's 900 people in a 700-person theater. Well, there's good reason for censoring them because 400 of those people are going to die in the stampede for the doors. Is there any comparable case when you're not in an active situation? I don't know. I wish I could believe that there's never any case that nothing should ever, ever be censored under any circumstances. I don't think I do believe that, though.
I don't really believe it, but you have to in a way. Just because of what we think, do you know what I mean? Like I think that everyone should just agree with us and it should be OK to put [all sorts of intelligent] things in books and obviously there shouldn't be hate literature available to children. But other people don't think that.
Well, you're exploring one side of it that has to be explored. Because you're absolutely right: given that not everybody is going to see the world from a...
From our view.
Yes. Exactly. But I resist the idea that things are always easily solvable. I think there are some things that are not easily solvable. You have this necessity that you have to absolutely respect and you have this necessity that you have to absolutely respect and sometimes they're in tension with each other. I wish the world didn't work that way. I wish if we found something that was clearly right, there was never any other clear right that couldn't easily be reconciled with that. But I think sometimes there are things that are clearly right that can not be easily reconciled with other things that we also believe in. And how you cut the cake in those cases is a tricky one. But I would rather start by saying: you know, both sides have some right on them and the challenge is to see how to do the least damage and to honor both sides. People who think: I'll only follow this, or I'll only follow that, I mistrust them. The purity of absolute certainty in what must be done.
Are you working on anything right now?
The one thing I'm working on is a book that sort of goes on from the five or six kids' books I've done. A book of poetry. I've decided to try something I haven't done before and that is to see if I could write poems located in the mindset and heartset of someone in early puberty -- 12 to 15. For some reason the age that my imagination seems to connect with most is quite young. Three to seven, when I'm writing children's stuff. My adult stuff is very unlike that. I don't write by trying to calculate what will interest a child of a certain age and then going and putting in two monsters and one ice cream cone or whatever. I just try to find what has now become a god-awful cliché: "the inner child."
So, trying to find my way into those years -- early teens -- I found those pretty dicey years myself. So I sort of suck in my breath when I go, but I've been exploring it. I'm not sure when the book will be out. Not for another year or two at least, I'm sure. But that's one thing. And I'm actually having a lot of fun with that.
How many children's books have you done?
Well, among big books I've done Alligator Pie and actually the one that came out at the same time which was for somewhat older kids but I'm not sure that it really worked. It was called Nicholas Knock. Then Garbage Delight, Jelly Belly, The Ice Cream Store and Bubblegum Delicious. Then there have been some smaller books along the way like Lizzie's Lion. So that's the fifth major book until this book.
How do you choose an illustrator?
This guy is the one who did Ice Cream Store too. The thing that thrills me about his work is that he can do realistic children and creatures and the kids have some kind of inner life. A lot of kids in children's book illustration, I just don't believe in them. They just seem sort of decorative: part of the wallpaper. I believe in [David McPhail's] children -- and his dogs -- very much. But, that said, he's not just kind of anchored in doing photorealism things. He can goof off completely into the fantastical. So with the last book and with this book I was really looking for somebody who could go across the spectrum with the real life kids and even within this we've got kids we believe in and we've got this stuff [indicates a brighlty colored insect blowing a bubble and playing a drum on the cover of Bubblegum Delicious] and how do they come into the same world? Well, they just do. Effortlessly, at home in both. And that's what the poetry is often doing: trying to touch the real life feeling and trying to just play... at the same time.
Do you actively choose the illustrator? Or do they come to you?
[They don't] come, but I think each time there's been a very conscious choice. I think I'm probably as happy or happier with David than I [have been] with anybody else.
Most of your books have been for adults?
Well numerically now I guess there are a few more children's books than adult ones, but it's about evenly divided. For a while I kept getting phone calls late at night from people who were at panic time in the courses at some university either at Toronto or nearby and they'd signed up to do a paper on Dennis Lee for a Canadian literature course. And often they were people who had stayed home, raised a family and they'd see "Dennis Lee" and say: Aw, that'll be kind of a bird essay, I can get through that one pretty quickly. And then sat down and started reading Civil Elegies of the Gods or one of my [other] adult projects, which is what they had to write about, and said: Oh my God! What is this? Alligator Pie this is not.
In a few cases they got my number and said: Mr. Lee, I'm sorry to bother you at home this late at night but I have to turn in my paper tomorrow morning. Can you tell me, what does Civil Elegies mean? And why does it have so many big words in it? I loved Alligator Pie, but...
That was the book that won the Governor General's award . The publisher used to get orders for it under the name of Civil Allergies. [Laughs]
So, my adult stuff is at a very different end of the spectrum from the children's books.
You've written a great deal.
Many a word. It's funny, I have this sense of never being able to get anything written. I work very slowly. But over the course of enough years, it does seem to accumulate. | March 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.