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So Cool

by Dennis Lee, Maryann Kovalski, illus.

Dennis Lee broke new ground in Canadian children’s poetry when his first collections appeared 30 years ago. Decades before Captain Underpants and Walter the Farting Dog arrived on the scene, Lee was gleefully serving up toilet humour and other forms of irreverence in Alligator Pie, Garbage Delight, and Nicholas Knock and Other People. But there’s more to Lee’s work than bodily excretions; his poems have always hinted at the sacred while trumpeting the profane.

His latest collection, So Cool, continues in this tradition. It is his first book for a young adult audience, and the mercurial ways of adolescents are reflected in a wide range of styles and voices. The many moods among the 36 poems must have presented a challenge for the illustrator, Maryann Kovalski, whose mixed-media artwork performs well here. Drawings, collages, and paintings in several different styles are all nicely integrated with the text, both spatially and thematically.

The collection is at its best – and is most likely to appeal to teens – in its melancholy or nostalgic modes, as in this farewell to summer: “Back in the city, let me be warmed for a year by the animal nudge of perfection.” The more raucous material – about popping zits and shouting insults – leaves me cold. This may just be the problem of an adult reader, but I suspect that teens are looking for more sophisticated reflections of themselves. They might also resist some of the more childish material, like the reprint of “Inspector Dogbone Gets His Man” from Garbage Delight. Nostalgia and vulnerability have their appeal, but the cool factor needs to be maintained.