Dennis Lee's Groundbreaking Alligator Pie is Reborn
Poet Dennis Lee's children's classics Alligator Pie and Garbage Delight are brought back to life this month in sparkling new "classic editions" published by HarperCollins Canada. Though the popularity of Lee's work for children hasn't waned since the 1974 publication of Alligator Pie—which went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies around the world—the book has been out of print since publisher Key Porter folded in early 2011. Thankfully, HarperCollins Canada's gain is all of ours, as they've bought up Lee's entire Key Porter backlist and will be reissuing his children's collections season by season.
Alligator Pie was a groundbreaking book. The world of Canadian publishing was very a different place in 1974, and there was very little regard for children's literature within the industry. In his memoir Stories About Storytellers, editor Douglas Gibson recalls that there were no children's bookstores and only one children's publisher, Tundra. He writes of his arrival at Macmillan Canada when “...the corridors... were alive with gossip of how [publisher Hugh Kane] was championing a crazy project, a couple of children’s books by a poem named Dennis Lee, illustrated by Hugh’s old friend Frank Newfield, that would need to sell ten times the usual number of copies sold by Canadian children’s books before they broke even. The whole thing was going to be a disaster.”
But a disaster it decidedly wasn't. Alligator Pie sold 137,000 copies in 15 months, with 10,000 copies sold to the US market. It was awarded the Children's Librarian's Book of the Year Award in 1974, and was chosen for the Hans Christian Andersen Honour List two years later. It was followed up with Nicholas Knock and Other People the same year, and Garbage Delight in 1977, both with Frank Newfeld who, in addition to being an illustrator, was Vice President of Publishing at McClelland and Stewart. Lee is also well known for his 1983 collection Jelly Belly, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard.
In the years that followed the success of Alligator Pie, a new focus was placed on Canadian children's literature and children's poetry that we almost take for granted today. New publishers grew up, institutions such as the Canadian Children's Book Centre and Children's Book Week were founded, children's literary festivals were born, and so many good books were published. Dennis Lee himself recalls of the time, "The sense I have most strongly was the excitement as so many writers started to come out of the woodwork. Publishers, librarians, teachers and parents were realizing that good stuff was coming from their own time and place.”