Playing with the Poems of Dennis Lee

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Dennis Lee is one of my favorite children’s poets. His poetry books are filled with easy to memorize nonsensical rhymes. Some, like a handful of poems in his book Jelly Belly, crib heavily off of traditional nursery rhymes but updated for the modern age. Some make good jump-rope chants and some lend themselves to silly finger games. When my oldest son was younger he had a game pretending to be the might hunters from a poem in Bubblegum Delicious.

This week we’ve been reading and rereading Jelly Belly. My four year old loves to jump into my arms and be shaken up as we recite together a poem about a doll in a washing machine. We practiced segmenting the sounds of words using a poem “Zinga Zinga” (changing the first letter of those two words and pumpkin to different sounds) and played clapping games with other poems. We played the old one-potato-two-potato game (to select which child wins or is out) to new lyrics and my oldest calculated out where the best position to stand is.
We took a verse that went

“Carey cut the back yard,
Carey cut the front;
Carey cut the house in two –
What a silly stunt.”

and we invented a silly game where two of us stood with our hands together as the house, and the third person ran around the house and then charged between us. We played the game standing on the one bed in the house the kids are allowed to jump on and we all collapsed into a giggling heap at the end.

We talked about how the premise of “Mrs. Murphy, and Mrs. Murphy’s Kids” is that when a child is small they are physically tiny and when they grow big they grow physically big. Then we took turns inventing little jokes based on the same premise. For example, “When I am big I’ll need to dip my toothbrush in the river, because that’s how big my toothbrush will be.” Or “when I was small I rested my head on protons as I watched electrons whirl about.” A good accompaniment to this poem is the story When You Were Small by Sara O’Leary, as it is based on the same idea that “small” means “physically tiny” rather than younger.

My 4-year old’s illustration of the poem “Jelly Belly”
where the man’s house falls apart.

Many of Dennis Lee poems refer to locations in Canada. The Cat and the Wizard, a story in poem, is set in Castle Loma, Toronto. The poem “Dead Men in Edmonton” refers to a graveyard I remember driving past regularly as a child. “The King of Calabogie” refers to a town in Ontario. A one potato, two potato style rhyme refers to Calgary. I like the Canadian references. Even when the children learn nothing about the location other than the name, it makes it easier later when I’m trying to teach them about the place. Also, I like the idea that it sets the poems all around us. Poems aren’t about things out there in that other place, they are about things around us.
Some of the poems are very silly. Some deal with serious topics lightly, like a poem about bullying and one about a graveyard. They don’t preach they just treat them like any other part of life to be joked about and made into poems. A few of the poems are about dreams and nightmares. Some of the poems seem crude like jokes about underwear, someone having a pickle up his nose or the yucky noise of boys and girls kissing in the schoolyard. One poem in Jelly Belly refers to “bigamy Bill” with his two wives. Yet there’s an innocent childishness about them. The children laugh and ask me to reread the ones that speak to them at a particular time and if a poem doesn’t then we read it once and rarely return to it. There is one of the poetry books, Alligator Pie, that my son will not let me borrow from the library anymore because he found the imagery in one poem disturbing to him. (If I remember correctly, the image had to do with some sort of shelf full of body-parts. My middle child didn’t mind the picture, but my older one had trouble with it. Health related things creep him out easily.)

The poetry has its flaws and perfectionist poets might cringe at the liberty Mr. Lee takes with rhythm at times, but the vocabulary is good. The Cat and the Wizard has a particularly complex vocabulary to it and was a bit challenging for the kids to understand at first but we worked our way through it and the cheerful pictures and silly story delighted them.

The book collection of poems titled Bubblegum Delicious are focused around a small boys adventures with his dog, some bugs and his imagination. The collection titled Jelly Belly include illustrations linking together a handful of the otherwise separate poems. The illustrations and pictures of Jelly Belly are somewhat darker than those of Bubblegum Delicious.

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4 thoughts on “Playing with the Poems of Dennis Lee

  1. Sounds like a great collection of poems. I love how you integrated so many learning styles- making up active games for one and having a conversation about geographical locations for another.

  2. It is National Poetry Month, so this is a great post for April. You really review the books completely enough for us to know which ones we could check out of the library. It is nice to know which ones your children enjoyed, probably others will, too. Thank you so much, Carolyn

  3. Thanks for linking into the Kid Lit Blog Hop Christy!

    Ok, I couldn’t resist…someone gifted us Alligator pie a while ago and you are right, one of the poems, In Kamloops features a shelf full of body parts and the poem starts like the following:

    In Kamloops
    I’ll eat your boots.

    In the Gatineaus
    I’ll eat your toes.

    In Napanee
    I’ll eat your knee.

    Then there’s rhyming with Winnipeg, Red Deer, Kitimat, etc… You get the picture (literally)! It is rather morbid, isn’t it?

  4. I introduced my 14-month-old to Dennis Lee’s poetry a few weeks ago, and she loves it! I stumbled across your post today. Thank you for other ideas on how to use his poems!

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