Vanilla Gorilla

32 pages,
ISBN: 0921870574

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Children`s Books
by Erinn Banting

Writing wide-ranging and sophisticated verse for children between the ages of three and eight is an ambitious goal, to say the least. William New has accomplished just this, and admirably so, in his first children's book, Vanilla Gorilla. This collection of fifteen poems is an example of what intelligent, funny, well-constructed poetry for children can achieve.

It's always exciting to see Canadian references in any children's book. Here, New takes us all over the Canadian map: from Toronto to Vancouver, from Newfoundland to Alberta, from Moose Jaw to Halifax, and to many other locales in between-in the span of a mere thirty-two pages.

Apart from the geographic references, we meet a veritable repertoire of stock Canadian symbols, like a Mountie and a fish named Antigonish who eats fiddleheads and lunches in Old Montreal (anywhere "the meal won't be me," he says). There are references to everything from pemmican to a catamaran (in the fast-paced "Mackerel Mockery Pickery Pike") and, of course, the narwhal who "ends up in Newfoundland/ Instead of Baffin Bay".

The book is by no means a mere excursion through difficult language, far-flung places, and wonderful rhyming verse. There are examples of "haiku":

My grandmother laughs

with her eyes: Japanese

butterflies are less blue.

"Inside Out" and "Being Only" offer more serious themes. In the latter, the life of a child living in the "land of Only Children" is explored through lines such as:

They tell you that you're bigger now,

Grow up and act your age-

But next they say you're little still,

And keep you in a cage-

Vivian Bevis's watercolour illustrations are a mystical, colourful, and brilliant accompaniment, and have enough detail to keep any child enraptured for hours. Actions, places, objects, people, and creatures drape the pages, allowing even not-yet-readers to retain interest in the book's goings-on.

The sophistication of Vanilla Gorilla might have been lost on a younger child were it not for Bevis's drawings. For the older, ambitious child who wants to know where places like Moose Jaw are and what pemmican is, the book will open up endless opportunities for exploration and learning while having fun. 

Erinn Banting is completing a Specialist in English Literature at the University of Toronto.


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