The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 6, No 1 (2002)

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LG Lore

Jeffrey Canton, column editor


"Alligator Pie, Alligator Pie, If I don't get some I think I'm gonna die"

Jeffrey Canton


For more than twenty-five years, Canadian kids have feasted on the delicious nonsense verse of poet Dennis Lee. No single collection of his is more loved than Alligator Pie, which has rightly been called a Canadian Mother Goose and was the first significant collection of poetry for Canadian kids that acknowledged their own unique Canadian landscape. In 1974, Lee, who is currently the Poet Laureate of the City of Toronto, and Canada's nominee for the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, was already an established poet (his adult collection Civil Elegies and other poems won the 1972 Governor Generals Award) and a founder of one of Canadas most important and innovative small presses, The House of Anansi. Alligator Pie wasn't his first collection for younger readers; he'd published Wiggle to the Laundromat in 1970 in a big book format, but it was Alligator Pie that clearly established Lee as Canada's children's poet. Those who have followed have often been clearly identified as under the influence: poets as different as bp Nichol, Sheree Fitch, Loris Lesynski, Tim Wynne-Jones, Lois Simmie, sean o'huigin and Robert Heidbreder. And this year on April 2, Canadians coast to coast had a chance to join in a nation-wide reading of the title poem in that collection in celebration of both International Children's Book Day and Lee's nomination (along with illustrator Michle Lemieux) for the Andersen Award.

What is it about Alligator Pie that it has been able to work its way into our literary consciousness? In part, it is certainly Lee's acknowledgement that Canadian kids deserved their own poetry that truly reflected their own unique place in the world. He began writing these poems first for his own small children. "It was completely unpremeditated; I just started making rhymes for my kids. Rhymes would knock around in my head and I'd start finding words for them." (Canadian Books for Children: A Guide to Authors and Illustrators, p. 101) But the success of Alligator Pie isn't due just to being just kid-friendly. Though new and original, the poems also share a special something with Mother Goose rhymes. Lee clearly acknowledges the importance in Alligator Pie of the traditional nursery rhyme and, in fact, contends that nursery rhymes reflect a sense of community, a sense of a stable world, of an at homeness. In their play with words, sound, rhythm, and imagery, they parallel the child's sense of play. (Canadian Books for Children, p. 102)

In the postlude to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Alligator Pie, Lee writes, "The details of Mother Goose -- the wassails and Dobbins and pipers and pence -- had become exotic; children loved them, but they were no longer home ground. Not that this was a bad thing. But I started to wonder: shouldn't a child also discover the imagination playing on things she lived with every day? Not abolishing Mother Goose, but letting her take up residence among hockey sticks and high-rise too? I began experimenting." (Alligator Pie, p. 63)

So Alligator Pie bursts with all the giddy nonsense and tongue-twistery word play of traditional nursery rhymes. It is replete with rhymes full to the brim with a gleeful giggly absurdity perfect for bouncing ("Singa Songa", "Bouncing Song") and skipping ("Mumbo, Jumbo", "Rattlesnake Skipping Song", "In Kamloops") or just declaiming for the sounds themselves ("The Sitter and the Butter and the Better Batter Fritter"). These poems play over and over again with the word-slipperiness, to borrow a term from poet Sheree Fitch, of Canadian place names ("The Fishes of Kempenfelt Bay", "Kahshe or Chicoutimi"). They also feature a wonderful and original cast of nonsense characters from grundiboobs, potamuses, pyschapoos and crankabeasts to Nicholas Grouch who has filled his pouch with garbage lids and bears, fibber extraordinaire Tony Baloney and poor Billy Batter whose dad has been snatched by a dragon and whose mum is in the hands of a monster! There are references to Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, folkloric creatures like the mythical Ookpik and places that have become part and parcel of the Canadian literary landscape: Casa Loma, Eatons and Honest Ed's. They pay homage to not only the venerable Mother Goose but to A.A. Milne, Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit, Lewis Carroll's Alice as well as more contemporary characters like Snoopy and the Grinch. And most fantastical of all there is alligator pie (and alligator stew and alligator soup too!) -- more desirable than green grass, furry hats, hockey-sticks, hoops and the sky -- so wonderfully delicious that without it, you're liable to die.

In Sheila Egoff and Judith Saltman's The New Republic of Childhood, Lee is acknowledged as one of those groundbreakers who helped to change the face of Canadian children's literature, adding a joyous rowdiness to what had been a hitherto bland area of our children's literature (p. 17), helping to give Canadian children a sense of their particular time and space -- a feat that cannot be accomplished in writing from other countries, no matter how excellent it is. (p. 295) They noted the crafted simplicity of his versifying and the echoes of not only the Mother Goose rhymes but of both Robert Louis Stevenson and A. A. Milne as Lee observes the self-absorbed inner life of the very young. (p. 295) Alligator Pie is not only rich in its exploration of life from a child's perspective with an emphasis on play, friendship, imagination and the emotional lives of children but is also notable for its delineation of Canada's urban landscape.

"His poems are often rich in allusions to skyscrapers and laundromats," write Egoff and Saltman, "and his images are often consciously and uniquely Canadian; they include place names (from Chicoutimi to Mississauga), historical characters (William Lyon Mackenzie King), and national pastimes (in a parody of a Milne poem, a unique hockey game is played by a worm, a flea, an elephant, and a bore). None of these details are self-consciously patriotic; the Canadian words and images are transformed into incantatory tongue-twisters and onomatopoeic talismans and charms, so that in the magical recital of emblems of Canadian culture, Moose Jaw becomes as mythic as Banbury Cross." And in essence, Lee has become Canada's very own Father Goose. "Children who enjoy his poetry," they write, "will certainly absorb the inflections of a Canadian sensibility, of a folklore poetic that is grounded in a real time and place and in its own way, is as satisfying as that of Mother Goose." (pp. 295-296)

Lee's laurels don't just rest on the whimsically wacky wordplay of Alligator Pie; in collections like Nicholas Knock, Garbage Delight and Bubblegum Delicious, he's created poems that sing to Canadian kids and children around the globe. He's also created wonderful single poem picture books like Lizzy's Lion, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay; The Ice Cream Store, illustrated by David McPhail; and most recently, The Cat and the Wizard, illustrated by Gillian Johnson. But it is Alligator Pie that we remember; Alligator Pie that we yearn for; and Alligator Pie that has endeared itself to Canadian readers young and old for two decades and more. It has indeed become a Canadian classic.

 

References

Egoff, Sheila A. and Judith Saltman. The New Republic of Childhood: A Critical Guide to Canadian Children's Literature in English. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Stott, Jon C. and Raymond E. Jones. Canadian Books for Children: A Guide to Authors and Illustrators. Toronto: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.

Dennis Lee Books Cited

Alligator Pie. Illus. by Frank Newfeld. Collector's Edition. Toronto: Key Porter Kids, 2001.

Bubblegum Delicious. Illus. by David McPhail. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2000.

The Cat and the Wizard. Illus. by Gillian Johnson. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2001.

Civil Elegies and Other Poems. Toronto: Anansi, 1968.

Garbage Delight. Illus. by Frank Newfeld. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1977.

The Ice Cream Store. Illus. by David McPhail. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1991.

Lizzy's Lion. Illus. by Marie-Louise Gay. Toronto: Stoddart, 1984.

Nicholas Knock and Other People. Illus. by Frank Newfeld. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974.

Wiggle to the Laundromat. Illus. by Charles Pachter. Toronto: New Press, 1970.

 


LG Lore column editor Jeffrey Canton also edits the children's book section of Books in Canada, is a regular contributor on children's books to CTV's Canada AM and a freelance writer and reviewer whose work has appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines in Canada and the United States. In his spare time, he has made himself somewhat of a reputation as a connoisseur of alligator pie, stew and soup and has given away any number of hockey sticks to satisfy his cravings.


Volume 6, Issue 1, The Looking Glass,, 2002

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""Alligator Pie, Alligator Pie, If I don't get some I think I'm gonna die"" © Jeffrey Canton, 2002.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680