Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature! Dennis Lee Talks About His New Children's Book, Canadian Publishing & More

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Dennis Lee

Many fervent fans of Dennis Lee's iconic children's books — in particular his Alligator Pie, a book dog-earred with love in millions of Canadian households — are now old enough to have children of their own to read to. It's been 41 years since Alligator Pie was first published, and more than ten years since the publication of Lee's most recent children's book, the acclaimed Bubblegum Delicious. So it's no stretch to say fans have been waiting, keenly and patiently, for the next offering from Canada's king of children's verse.

It arrives this month in the form of Melvis and Elvis (illustrated by Jeremy Tankard), a book which captures the magical rhythms and innate ability to connect with young readers that Lee's fans know so well.

Open Book spoke with Lee about the publication of Melvis and Elvis, as well as his perspectives on the Canadian publishing industry, which Lee helped to shape as a co-founder of House of Anansi Press, an editor for MacMillan and an award-winning poet for adults, in addition to his work in children's literature.

Lee tells Open Book about how Melvis and Elvis came to capture his imagination, why he doesn't want to be "a Dennis Lee factory" and why it's perfectly fine for kids to read "total crap".

Grace O'Connell for Open Book:

You've just launched Melvis and Elvis, your first children's book in more than ten years. What drew you back to writing for children and to this project in particular?

Dennis Lee:

The last one was Bubblegum Delicious, which was 2001 and there was a book for younger teenagers called So Cool, which came out in 2006 or 2007. But for younger guys, for little guys, I haven't done anything since 2001.

The thing I made up my mind about after Alligator Pie came out in '74, and was a big success, I knew I didn't want to just keep going back to the trough and cranking out more and more of the same. I didn't want to become a Dennis Lee factory. So I resolved to wait until something came along that was taxing my imagination with some new challenge. And I could go through the individual books one by one now and point out what it was in each piece that got me started. When I finished each new book, like Garbage Delight and Jelly Belly, Ice Cream Store and Bubblegum Delicious, I thought this may be the last one that I do. Only if there's some new challenge that comes along.

That applied for some time after Bubblegum Delicious and I was busy writing a lot of adult poetry during that time too. And then the idea of this one, where two little characters who go into a book — in a way it's a sort of adventure story the discovery of reading poetry, the discovery of reading really — that whole complex of ideas began to swirl around in my imagination. That was the thing that turned my crank finally. If there hadn't been something like that, I wouldn't have done another children's book. As I say, I don't want it to be just a "two years have gone by, let's crank out another one". There's no challenge in that.

GO:

Lucky for us. That's why you've been able to published such amazing books — you're very selective about picking the ideas that really speak to you.

DL:

That's a good way to put it. I'd like to think so.

GO:

I love [illustrator] Jeremy Tankard's work in Melvis and Elvis

DL:

Isn't it terrific?

GO:

It is. So we've got a monster and an elf, as opposed to kids as the characters. What do kids love about non-human characters like Melvis and Elvis?

DL:

Some kids have a domestic animal, a pet, in their life that is already a place for affection and safety, a dog or a cat. But I think also there's a combination of strangeness and security that can be there with a critter in a book. A sense of bonding. In this case, both character are other than human and yet in a way, I see Elvis as very much a small boy. The kind of tyke who is always on the run, has always got some new scheme, new thing he is doing even if it only last for twenty seconds. Who apparently doesn't want ot be cuddled or any of that "sissy" stuff.

GO:

That sounds like some little boys I know.

DL:

[Laughs] That's right. And Melvis I see as the older sister, who has a gentler side to her. She's already reading, she's able to be tender and compassionate and Elvis discovers that over the course of the book. I love that illustration right at the end, with the two of them sitting there. "One book heavy and one book light" — he's leaned up against her and is holding, I think, one of her claws. The tenderness of the illustration is beautiful, the fact that he really does in fact want physical contact and gentleness. But it can't be foisted upon him, he has to find his own way to it. The emotional dynamic is between two characters who on the face of things are from outer space, but I think the emotional back and forth is very much something that a child knows about.

GO:

I know you're a Toronto native, you've been involved in the writing and publishing scene since the early days. How do you see Canadian writing and publishing changing since your time with Anansi and MacMillan?

DL:

The changes have come so thick and fast in the last fifteen years in some ways, in the last handful of years in other ways. I can barely keep up with them, I don't pretend to have any magical view of all the new media and the new ways of books coming out. Truly, I drudge along behind trying to vaguely stay in touch. Back when my generation was cutting out teeth in the late sixties and early seventies, things seemed to be changing at a tremendous rate then, a lot of Canadian publishers were being taken over by American houses. There were a lot of challenges, and meeting them and keeping up with them was a big task for that generation. A number of things were created, like the Writers' Union and the Association of Canadian Publishers, to try to muster the resources.

Now the same thing is true, at an even faster rate of change, and in some ways, I guess I feel that the challenge has to be for people who are experiencing those changes in terms they can keep up with. I feel my geriatric group has had to pass the baton on to people who are under 150 years old [laughs]. I'm not sure if I have said anything yet.

GO:

No, that's interesting to hear that there was a lot of change happening in the late sixties and early seventies. It sounds like change is the only constant in publishing.

DL:

We felt as if everything was up for grabs. Somewhat in a good way, but a lot in not good ways. A lot things were being invented for the first time then though. The Canada Council realised that the grants they were making to individual writers — manuscripts were getting written but they weren't getting published. And at that time, they didn't have any program to subsidise publishers for literary publication. There were some very open people there, and the writers started lobbying also, and they agreed "Look, you've got a logjam here". They started making grants to publishers for specifically the publication of Canadian fiction and poetry.

And then they realised, again a few more years down the road, "Well this is great, but books are just sitting in the stores. Nobody's finding out about them". There was dissatisfaction in the air, and questions, "How come American writers all get sent on book tours across the country?" Sometimes good books by Canadians are just sitting there, so they started a program to subsidise book tours by Canadian writers. That came to be an accepted part of the landscape, but it all had to be improvised then. A lot of that was the push of the Writers' Union. The Public Lending Right, for instance.

GO:

A hugely important program.

DL:

Yes. That didn't exist in Canada — another one of the initiatives that writers pushed and pushed for then. So the challenges then and the things that people figured out in order to cope — and I'm sure I don't even know all the history — but I think the same thing would be true now. It's a hugely changing landscape. People who can deal with it, even it's kind of on a wing and prayer, need to do so now.

GO:

So are there writers who are publishing now who you're enthusiastic about?

DL:

Oh, yeah, there are lots. When I'm doing my own writing, I don't manage to do a whole lot of reading. Partly time but also just focus.

Some younger poets though — though what looks like a younger poet to me now could be on an Old Age Pension — but I'm particularly taken with Karen Solie and Ken Babstock. They're both in their forties, so they're not newcomers, but they're among the very strongest of the adult poets.

Children's writing, I must admit, I am really behind the times.

GO:

That brings me to another question I wanted to ask, actually, which is what are some of your own favourites, classic children's books, that you read and which stuck with you from your own childhood?

DL:

I think the one that stuck with me the most — I was lucky I was born in a family where we had bedtime stories every night, there were four kids and there would always be some reading to us and our own reading at bedtime, so I was read to and I was a bookworm. I just slurped books up like crazy. From the early years, I am thinking about two books — though it's hard to say two, because I loved so many. I read everything, I read total crap, loved it. Absolutely classic stuff, loved it. I would recommend the same thing to parents, you know, let your kids read widely and find their own things.

So, Mother Goose, first of all. I think it's an amazing introduction to the world of rhythm and sound and tiny tales. Did you know that English appears to be the only language that has that kind of treasury of tiny poems?

GO:

I didn't know that, that's fascinating actually.

DL:

Every language has fairy tales and folk tales, songs for youngsters and whatnot. But there's other a thousand poems that have been part of Mother Goose over the centuries, and there's, oh, a 100 or 125 that are the stock from which any Mother Goose volume is drawn. A lot of them, the ones that have been there in history are dead as a doornail now. But there doesn't seem to be any other language that has something like that resource. Anyway, so that would be one. The other one, for older kids than that, a consummate book for pre-adulthood, is The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Ratty and Mole!

But I love Lewis Carroll, I love the Arthur Ransome books. Not in favour now particularly, those were books for younger teenagers, YA I guess they would be called now.

When I was growing up, somehow my family never introduced me to Alligator Pie, so I didn't read Alligator Pie until I was older — that's a kind of Alice in Wonderland logic.

I grew up in the pagan wilds of Etobicoke. I was the second [of four children]. Etobicoke was much smaller than, and there was no library. The closest library was the one at Bloor and Runnymede. There was one high school. You could look out the back window of our dining room and the fields just stretched as far as you could see.

GO:

Wow, a very different Etobicoke.

DL:

A very, very different Etobicoke. That was in the forties and fifties.

GO:

I wanted to wrap up by asking you what you're working on next.

DL:

I've done some songs at Soulpepper — a project called The Lost Songs of Toronto. It's been part of a cabaret… I'm a resident artist at Soulpepper.

A lot of places, a lot of regions, have musical traditions that have grown up there. London Bridge is Falling Down, As I Walked Out in the Streets of Laredo, Sidewalks of New York, Sur le Pont d'Avignon, songs where nobody knows exactly who wrote them usually — they grew out of a life. So what are the songs that have grown up that way in Toronto over our 200 years of history? Well, there are almost none. So the project was to find the lost songs of Toronto, and we found, after deep archeological research, we found them by writing the darn things ourselves. We made up the songs that should have been there, as anonymous ballads or street songs or love songs. I did the words and various musicians did the melodies. There have been four or five performances, including one at Luminato last June. So I may do some more of the Lost Songs of Toronto, and otherwise, it's back to adult poetry.

This interview has been edited and condensed

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