The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 4, No 2 (2000)

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The Sweet Second Life of Matt Cohen.

by Jeffrey Canton


Jeffrey Canton is the Children's Book Review Editor at Books in Canada and a freelance writer and reviewer whose work appears in newspapers and magazines across Canada.

This article first appeared in slightly different form in The Globe and Mail
on February 19, 2000. It is reprinted with the publisher's permission.

For over a decade, it was the best-kept secret in kids' books in Canada. The late Matt Cohen, who died just two weeks after receiving the 1999 Governor General's Award for fiction, had another writing life that he kept under wraps. For more than a decade, he published books for young readers under the pseudonym Teddy Jam. When Toronto's Metro Reference Library hosts a tribute to Teddy Jam on April 2, fans won't find any photos of Cohen. In keeping with the late author's wishes, the event will be strictly a Teddy Jam affair.

Even the eulogy that his long-time friend and colleague Dennis Lee delivered at Cohen's funeral last December didn't actually let the secret out of the bag. Lee joked wryly, "What may be less well-known is that Matt was also a successful children's author. Despite widespread speculation, this part of his career has not been publicly confirmed. But I [will] reveal today, for the first time, that Matt Cohen wrote all but the final volume of Anne of Green Gables."

Why didn't Cohen acknowledge that he was Teddy Jam? It certainly wasn't a question of his success as a children's writer. His first book, Night Cars, published in 1988, is a lyrical lullaby that has been dubbed Canada's Goodnight Moon. After that, the critically acclaimed Jam celebrated the lives of contemporary kids in tenderly comic, whimsical picture books like Doctor Kiss Says Yes, Jacob's Best Sisters and The Charlotte Stories as well as in his first novel for younger readers, ttuM. In picture books like The Year of Fire and The Stoneboat, he explored Canada's rural past, opening a door to younger readers to the Ontario landscape that he so evocatively explored in his adult fiction. His books, published by Groundwood Books in Toronto, were also illustrated by some of Canada's finest graphic artists, including Ian Wallace and Ange Zhang; and both Eric Beddows and Joanne Fitzgerald won awards for their illustrations of Teddy Jam texts.

"Matt loved to write," says his partner and Groundwood publisher, Patsy Aldana. "But he didn't always enjoy being a writer in the public sense of what that requires. He loved to be Teddy Jam and had a whole persona that he took on -- happy, cheery, unneurotic -- because, as Teddy Jam, he was not encumbered by the obligations of being a writer. He could just write freely without worrying about what people said about him, whether what he was writing would please this person or that one. It was relaxing for him not to have his adult audience looking at his work as a children's writer."

Aldana recalls that when she first met Cohen, he wanted her to publish a book about his border collie, Teddy. "It was going to be his dog going around, with a camera about his neck, sniffing. A Scratch and Sniff book for dogs."

Teddy Jam's U.S. publisher, Margaret McElderry, thought that the name was too silly to use. When she published The Year of Fire, McElderry, who was unaware of the author's real identity, changed his name to "Edward (Teddy) Jam". "But Matt didn't care because it was just plain fun and doing something just for fun is great," adds Aldana.

Not having an author to do the necessary publicity to sell books presented some unusual challenges to Aldana. Most children's authors and illustrators visit schools and libraries to meet their young fans, appear at bookstores to sign copies of their books and travel the conference circuit to talk about their work. But Teddy Jam wasn't even available for telephone interviews. When U.S. sales reps requested publicity photographs, Groundwood sent them Eric Beddows's gleeful black-and-white portrait of a teddy-bear jam jar.

Cohen himself didn't write about his other career in the memoir that he completed just before his death; tentatively titled, Typing: A Life in 26 Keys, it is due out in September from Random House Canada. However, in response to a 1997 fan letter, Teddy Jam wrote, "I never set out to become a children's writer. I wrote my first book, Night Cars, because it came into my mind after a night -- much like the one depicted in the book -- staying up with my child. Once that book actually appeared, with its beautiful illustrations -- I myself failed art in school -- I wrote other ones as they occurred to me. While I admire those who have the public skills to go around being official writers, I am better at staying at home and making poached eggs."

Cohen's home life was, in fact, essential to Teddy Jam's creative life. "Matt's books were very autobiographical," notes Aldana. "Books like The Charlotte Stories and ttuM arose out of his life as a father, observing the kids. He really loved our children, Daniel and Madeleine. Madeleine, in fact, was his special assistant, Honey Jam. Night Cars is Daniel's story and Madeleine was an inspiration for Charlotte."

As Cohen's children grew up, so did the kind of books that Teddy Jam wrote. He'd planned to begin work on another Charlotte novel, envisaging a series modelled on Beverley Cleary's Ramona books. His farm outside of Kingston, Ontario, was another important inspiration for him. Books like The Year of Fire and The Stoneboat were like simpler versions of his acclaimed Salem trilogy (The Disinherited, 1974; The Colours of War, 1977; The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone, 1979), adult novels set in eastern Ontario. These "mini-Salem" novels for children focused on Canada's past, a past that Cohen thought was in danger of being lost. He used a summer spent at historian George Grant's cottage on the East Coast jigging for cod as a jumping-off place for The Fishing Summer. And he wanted to write a book set on the West Coast where he had lived and fished as an adult. "All the notes for it are there," says Aldana, "but I know that he didn't write any of it."

Once asked what he himself considered the ingredients for a good children's book, Teddy Jam wrote, "I'm a writer, not a critic, but I wish I knew the answer. In my stories I try to have an interesting person in a place I care about with something at stake. What I liked when I was young -- and still do -- were books that spoke directly to me, and that is the kind of book I try to write."

For fans unable to attend the Toronto tribute on April 2, which coincides with International Children's Book Day and the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen, there is the consolation of a new Teddy Jam story to read. His final picture book, still untitled, is about Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens arena, with pictures by one of Teddy's favourite illustrators, Ange Zhang.

Teddy Jam's Books:

The Charlotte Stories. Illus. by Harvey Chan. Toronto: Groundwood, 1994. ISBN 0888992106.

Doctor Kiss Says Yes. Illus. by Joanne Fitzgerald. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1991. ISBN 088899141X.

The Fishing Summer. Illus. by Ange Zhang. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997. ISBN 0888992858.

Jacob's Best Sisters. Illus. by Joanne Fitzgerald. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1996. ISBN 0888992297.

Night Cars. Illus. by Eric Beddows. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1988. ISBN 0888990588.

The Stoneboat. Illus. by Ange Zhang. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1999. ISBN 0888993684.

This New Baby. Illus. by Karen Reczuch. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1998. ISBN 0888993277.

ttuM. Illus. by Harvey Chan. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1999. ISBN 0888993730.

The Year of Fire. Illus. by Ian Wallace. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1992. ISBN 0888991541


 

Jeffrey Canton


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"The Sweet Second Life of Matt Cohen"
© Jeffrey Canton , 2000.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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