“The Teddy Bear Habit” by James Lincoln Collier

The Teddy Bear Habit by James Lincoln CollierI thought it might be fun to occasionally revisit a favorite book from my childhood; not surprisingly, I was an avid reader, and I still own a handful of my old kid-lit volumes. One of my most cherished books was The Teddy Bear Habit by James Lincoln Collier, which was first published in 1967. I read it several years after that, and I strongly suspect that even by the late 60s its depiction of a Greenwich Village filled with beatniks and folk singers was already outdated. (Hadn’t the hippies moved in by then?) Still, I was absolutely enraptured by Collier’s depiction of Manhattan.

The book’s hero and narrator, 12-year-old George Stable, lives in Greenwich Village with his dad, a painter who draws comic books on the side. (His mom died when he was a baby.) His father disdains modern music and demands that George study voice with a pretentious British teacher, Mr. Smythe-Jones. However, George is keeping two big secrets: he’s taking guitar lessons from a beatnik named Wiggsy. And he’s got a good-luck charm, an old teddy bear: “I don’t understand it. I just feel stronger and more confident when he’s around… I know it’s a terrible thing for a kid as big as me to go around carrying a teddy bear. It’s a weakness, and it’s embarrassing to me all the time.”

When a chance encounter with a talent scout leads to an audition for a TV show, George has the bright idea of hiding the bear in the body of his acoustic guitar. (Sure, that muffles the sound, but he convinces the producers that “it’s my trademark.”) But then Wiggsy discovers the bear, which becomes a small, stuffed accomplice to a crime committed by the sinister beatnik.

I really enjoyed the way the story is told from George’s first-person point of view, but as a kid growing up in a small Midwestern city, what kept me coming back to The Teddy Bear Habit, which I read and reread numerous times, was the stuff about New York, which seemed as exotic as any foreign land. Even the food was different—George’s favorite snack is the egg cream (a beverage which “contains neither eggs nor cream,” as Wikipedia helpfully notes). I had no idea what exactly was in an egg cream, but when I finally visited New York years later, I made sure to find a soda fountain and order one.

There’s also a wonderful passage in which George needs to travel from Greenwich Village to midtown, “over thirty blocks uptown and three blocks crosstown,” but he doesn’t have enough money to take the bus or subway, so he walks. “The city was just getting started for the day. As I went along people began unlocking their stores, folding back the iron grilles on delicatessen doors, rolling down the awnings of shoe stores, turning on neon signs in the windows of restaurants… The department stores weren’t open, but there were people in some of the windows putting clothes on the plastic models… It was funny to see them carrying models around as if they were logs of wood.” Oh, how I longed to walk those streets myself someday!

Incredibly, considering the book is now 50 years old, both the author and the illustrator (New Yorker favorite Lee Lorenz, whose loose and lively drawings provide a wonderful accompaniment to Collier’s text) are still alive. Lorenz is 85 and Collier is 89. The Manhattan they depicted no longer exists, but I’m grateful that it will live forever within the covers of The Teddy Bear Habit.