________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 9. . . .December 19, 2008


How We Were.

Teddy Jam. Illustrated by Ange Zhang.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2008.
64 pp., hardcover, $25.00.
ISBN 978-0-88899-901-6.

Kindergarten-grade 3 / Ages 5-8.

Review by Valerie Nielsen.

**** /4



     internal artIn How We Were, four previously published stories by well-loved author Teddy Jam, nom de plume for the late Matt Cohen, are combined in one picture book. Each story celebrates a way of life which, although lost, is remembered in vivid detail in the voice of a young narrator. The quartet of tales is stunningly illustrated by Ange Zhang, a gifted artist who won the Bologna Ragazzi Award for Red Land, Yellow River, a memoir of growing up during the Cultural Revolution.

I could tell you a fire so big you wouldn't believe it.

I would, I promised. My grandfather Howard always makes me promise to believe his stories.

Okay, he said, the way he always does. I'll tell you about a fire, the biggest I ever saw, the biggest there ever was around here.

     In The Stoneboat, the second story, a boy and his brother save the life of a huge and powerful neighbour:

Mr. Richard was his own law. He had the best land in the township and was famous for working it eighteen hours a day. He made more money than anyone else, then loaned it when others ran out of cash.

     Meeting his burly neighbour picking rocks in a nearby field, the young narrator imagines himself saying I know my father owed you two hundred dollars. But Evan and I saved your life… Alas, he can't find the moment to speak and instead picks up a shovel and helps Mr. Richardson move a gigantic rock. In the end, as is so often the way, an act of neighborliness speaks louder than any words.

     The Kid Line is set in the 1930's. A young boy listens to his father's stories of growing up with hockey playing brothers Charlie and Lionel Conacher. The brothers were part of the so-called Kid Line, a group of talented young players who propelled the Toronto Maple Leafs to a Stanley Cup victory in 1932. Once a bricklayer who worked on the Maple Leaf Gardens, the narrator's father is reduced to working as a ticket scalper outside the building he had helped build. One never-to-be-forgotten night, the father sells a ticket to none other than Charlie Conacher, and the boy finds himself watching the game beside the erstwhile star of the Maple Leaf's Kid Line.

     The Fishing Summer, the last story in the book, is the bittersweet remembrance of a special summer in the life of a young boy. The narrator yearns to go out fishing with his uncles.

No way, my mother said. You'll fall in and drown.

I can swim, I said.

You're only eight years old, my mother said.

     That night, too excited to sleep, the young hero steals down to the boat, climbs in the cabin and falls asleep. The uncles call him a stowaway the next morning, but they take him out into the middle of the ocean where he experiences his first glorious day of what turns out to be his fishing summer. As is the case in each story, characters and landscape are brought to life by Zhang's bold and bright paintings.

     How We Were, by Teddy Jam, is not only a fine tribute to the ordinary people whose courage and determination were instrumental in building this country, but also it is a loving and nostalgic collection of stories which need to be remembered and passed on to each generation.

Highly Recommended.

A retired teacher-librarian, Valerie Nielsen lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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