by Dennis Lee
illustrated by Frank Newfeld
Publisher: Macmillan Company of Canada Ltd.
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book
Dennis Lee won the Governor General's Award for poetry in 1972 for his poetic meditation on Canadian identity in Civil Elegies, but he made perhaps his most enduring contribution to Canadian nationalism two years later with a short collection of near-nonsense rhymes written for a much younger set. Alligator Pie, which remains the classic Canadian bedtime book, is written as if Mother Goose had the Latin name Branta canadensis, from William Lyon Mackenzie King, who "loved his mother like anything," to Trois-Rivières, which, of course, rhymes with "eat your hair."
(synopsis from Goodreads)
I've known about Alligator Pie for years. I was introduced to the title poem when I was in elementary school. Its bouncy rhythm is unforgettable. I'm not sure if I read the book as a child or not, because none of the poems seemed familiar (with the exception of "Skyscraper", which I'm pretty sure was read to us in Grade 1).
Given that this book is almost 40 years old, it's not surprising that aspects of it feel a bit dated. Some of the illustrations are obviously from another time. A poem about measles and mumps shouts that it's from another era. And perhaps spousal abuse was once considered humourous, but that's no longer the case.
However, that being said, there are still a number of highly enjoyable poems in this collection. "Alligator Pie" is one of the best. "Ookpik" made me giggle. "On Tuesdays I Polish My Uncle" has some delicious rhymes involving a pet shark. "The Friends" is a sweet little poem about a child and their friend named Egg. "Tricking" is a cute poem about reverse psychology. "The Sitter and the Butter and the Better Batter Fritter" is so much fun to read aloud... if you can do it without cracking up at your attempts at the tongue twisters within.
This book is also extremely Canadian. Poems like "In Kamloops", "Bed Song", "William Lyon Mackenzie King", "Tongue Twister", and "Kahshe or Chicoutimi" all feature distinctly Canadian people or places. There's even a poem about hockey, appropriately titled "The Hockey Game".
The meter of these poems is such that they have a tendency to get stuck in your head, like a jump-rope song. Some of them reminded me of the poems in A. A. Milne's When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. I did not realize that Dennis Lee had been a lyricist for Fraggle Rock. The whimsy and fun he brought to those songs is on full display here.
If you can overlook the few dated poems and illustrations, you'll probably find quite a bit to like here. It would be a fun book to read aloud to children... but it's also fun for adults who just want to indulge their inner child.
Overall: 3.4 out of 5