It’s not an exaggeration to say that an entire generation of fans has been waiting for a new children’s poetry collection from Dennis Lee. More than three years have passed since the announcement that a new book was forthcoming – his first in more than a decade.
But if anyone has the clout to keep readers hanging on, it’s Lee, who became an undisputed icon of Canadian kidlit with the publication of Alligator Pie in 1974. Lee’s latest offering is Melvis and Elvis, a collection of 33 poems illustrated by icon-in-the-making Jeremy Tankard. The duo delivers a dynamic and raucous linguistic and visual experience full of Canuck references that does not disappoint.
Melvis – a large, lime-green monster that looks to be part rabbit, part amiable Sasquatch – meets Elvis the elf in the library. The two immediately hit it off and tuck themselves in a corner “like bears in a den” to read “a book about monsters and elves.”
The poems that follow stick to kid-friendly topics like animals, dinosaurs, food, and playground politics. The joy of Lee’s style is the spur-of-the-moment, improvised feel of his words, which read as though they are coming straight from the mouth of a six-year-old. “In Cabbagetown” features a creature called a Frankensteinoceros, and “The Notapotomus” includes clever wordplay such as, “In story, song, and thoughtamus / You’re gone, but not forgotamus.”
Bright, short poems (“Sloppy Joe,” “I Wish I Was,” “Hopeless”) are efficient little firecrackers, full of humour in their miniature narratives. However, there are some uninspired entries, including “When I Woke Up” and “Is Your Nose Too Small,” which reads like a hurried reworking of the song “Do Your Ears Hang Low?”
The collection’s real strength lies in the inspired pairing of author and illustrator. Tankard’s striking visuals brighten every page, and his bold, graffiti-inspired style is a perfect match for Lee’s boisterous, spontaneous prose. Equally adept at capturing vibrant movement, quiet moments of introspection, and gently surreal landscapes, Tankard demonstrates the impressive range required for the tall task of illustrating almost three dozen distinct poems.
Like Melvis and Elvis, Lee and Tankard are a magical duo. This one was worth the wait.