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Lee poems are sweet, tasty, and blow up real good

Bubblegum Delicious By Dennis Lee Illustrated by David McPhail Key Porter, 32 pages, $19.95 ages 3 to 7 REVIEWED BY

The condition of the Dennis Lee collection at the Toronto Public Library's Lillian H. Smith Branch may say something about the library's acquisitions budget, but it also speaks volumes about the popularity of Wiggle to the Laundromat, Alligator Pie, Garbage Delight etc. The books are tattered, patched and stained, their state a testament not to biblio-abuse, but to their constant use and the kind of visceral enjoyment they incite. There is no reason to believe that any other fate awaits Lee's newest collection of poetry, Bubblegum Delicious.

Thirty years ago, Wiggle to the Laundromat danced onto the then rather bare stage of Canadian children's literature. It was -- it is -- a big book. Its dimensions, its pictures and its words are outsize, and its title poem is memorable: "Wiggle to the laundromat/ Waggle to the sea/ Skip to Casa Loma/ And you can't catch me."

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With Wiggle to the Laundromat, the poem and the book, distinctly Canadian nursery rhymes were born. Lee's rhymes have a cadence that makes them ideal for some of the things for which rhymes were invented eons ago -- games, skipping, marching, singing, chanting. They're catchy, easily memorized, playful, tongue-twisting, sometimes subversive.

But Lee's verses have a special quality -- they have made common and unforgettable currency of Canadian place names like "Temagami, Temiskaming, Kenagami. Or Lynx, or Michipicoten Sound." Canadiana like loons and ookpiks have been assigned places in Lee's firmament, and subsequently in a generation or two of impressionable listeners, viz: "Someday I'll go to Nipigon/ To nip a goony loon./ But will a goony nipper lose/ His loony nipping spoon?"

Bubblegum Delicious,with illustrations by David McPhail, Lee's frequent collaborator, is more of the same delightful nonsense and then some. Take, for instance, Goober and Guck: "Goober and guck,/ Goober and guck,/ We're making a sandwich/ Of goober and guck." Or, in small type wound around a painting of a blond urchin, this: "People, people, don't be shy --/ Step right up for your toe-jam pie:/ [You get]one for a tummy-ache, two for a bed,/ And three for a coffin when you fall down dead."

The "then some" part of this new volume seems tailor-made for a 21st-century child, providing ammunition for the bulllied ( The Bully) and unguent for the lonely: "If lonesome was a pot of gold,/ I'd be a millionaire./ If missing you was party time,/ I wouldn't have a care." The sweet poignancy of Lavender and Bergamot, "Sweet perfume in my garden grows:/ Lavender and bergamot, jasmine and rose,/ Sandalwood and juniper, ylang ylang --/ Balm for the bee, and the heart's deep pang." It doesn't have time to cloy, not that it necessarily would, because the eye is immediately drawn to the astringent ditty further down the page: "My father was a killer bee,/ My mother was a bat,/ My uncle was a warty toad,/ And that's why I'm a brat."

Rounding out a book notable for its range and virtuosity is its final poem, You Too Lie Down, a lullaby of singular beauty -- and efficacy:

Over every elm, the

half-light hovers.

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Down, you lie down too.

Through every shade of dusk, a hush

impinges. Robins

settle to the nest; beneath the deep earth

breathes, it

breathes. You too lie

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down, the drowsy room is

close and come to darkness.

Hush, you

too can sleep at last. You

too lie down. Susan Perren is The Globe and Mail's children's books reviewer.

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