It’s always hard to hear the news of somebody passing away, especially when they were someone who has such a positive influence on your childhood. I recently experienced a moment like this a couple of weeks ago.
Although I never got to physically meet this woman or her husband, their contributions to the world of children’s literature definitely had a strong impact on my childhood. It kind of leaves me with a bit of a hole in my heart, knowing that both of them are gone, knowing that they will never be able to create any new stories with the family of characters that made them stars in the world of literature. Their stories and books were so influential in my childhood, and I will never forget the fond memories I had reading their books.
On February 24, 2012, we said goodbye to author Janice Berenstain. She was 88 years old. Her husband, Stanley, had passed away seven years earlier in 2005.
Of course, most of you would probably know them best as Stan and Jan Berenstain, the creators of the Berenstain Bear book series.
Let me tell you how huge the Berenstain Bear book franchise became. The first Berenstain Bears book was printed fifty years ago, in 1962. It was a little book known as “The Big Honey Hunt”. Over the course of the next fifty years, the Berenstain Bears library would contain upwards of 300 titles! And, I imagine that of all those titles, I probably have read at least half of them.
The story behind how the partnership between Stan and Jan came to be is quite touching and inspiring. Back when Janice Berenstain was known as Janice Grant, she met Stanley Berenstain in 1941. They were both classmates at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, and the two of them became fast friends. They were temporarily separated when Stan went to work as a medical illustrator for the Army while Janice worked as a riveter during World War II. They were reunited as soon as the war ended in 1945, and just months later, in April 1946, they got married.
The couple would end up having two children, Michael and Leo, and the couple initially started their careers as art teachers. But, both Stan and Jan really wanted to break out into the world of cartooning and getting published. They eventually got their first big break selling illustrations to various publications, including Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and Collier’s. In 1951, shortly after the birth of Leo, but before the birth of Michael, the Berenstains wrote and published their first book, “Berenstain’s Baby Book”. More books would follow, and many of them were geared towards parents, and offered tips, advice, and guidance for parents on how to raise children.
That was fine and dandy for the adult population. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that the Berenstains would venture into their most successful venture.
Writing for children.
They immediately agreed upon deciding to write a children’s book that the main character would be bears. According to Stan’s reasoning, the reason why bears were chosen was because they were fairly easy to draw. But Stan also admitted that when it came to fleshing out the details of the main characters, he noted that the female bears were very good at mothering, while the male bears were terrible fathers. I suppose this explains why Mama Bear was always depicted as the main disciplinarian, while Papa Bear was kind of a bumbling dolt upon hearing Stan’s explanation. There was also a small bear cub that was originally named Small Bear. He would eventually get a name change as the popularity of the Berenstain Bear series increased, but we’ll talk more about that a little later.
Would you believe that the first story idea that the Berenstains came up with starring the Berenstain Bears was a 1957 tale with the title “Freddy Bear’s Spanking”? Try selling that title to a book publisher these days!
They had sent the manuscript of the story to another well known author, Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), who himself had gotten a job as an editor for Random House’s Beginner Books, after having success of his own with “The Cat In The Hat”. While Geisel took the manuscript, he also challenged the Berenstains to make improvements on their writing and to connect with their readers on a deeper level.
It would take five years before the manuscript was edited enough for Geisel’s liking (which if I read the information about it correctly meant that the entire subject and plot changed), but eventually, the project turned into the 1962 book “The Big Honey Hunt”.
Would you believe that “The Big Honey Hunt” was originally intended to be a one-off tale? Geisel believed that because there were too many bear references in popular media (The Three Bears, Yogi Bear, etc) for the Berenstain Bears to make much of an impact. He even told the Berenstain Bears to come up with a story involving a different set of animals altogether! Sure enough, the Berenstains went to work on creating a story involving penguins! Those plans were soon abandoned when Geisel realized that “The Big Honey Hunt” was selling extremely well. He told the Berenstains to continue using the bears as characters, which was a good thing, because I really don’t think the Berenstain Penguins would have worked quite as well.
Thus, the Berenstain Bears were born.
Each story was set in the fictional Bear Country. The bears lived in a giant treehouse (literally, it was a house built inside a huge tree), and originally, the earliest books would revolve around Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Small Bear. But over the course of the series, two more bears would join the family. In 1974, the Berenstain Bears wrote the story “The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby”, after getting dozens of letters from young girls begging them to put in a girl bear. In the book, we see the arrival of a new female bear cub, named Sister Bear. With the arrival of Sister Bear, the character of Small Bear became “Brother Bear”. In the year 2000, a third bear cub would join the family named “Honey Bear”, who was born in the book “The Berenstain Bears and Baby Make Five”.
TRIVIA: Honey Bear was given her name by a fan who won a contest that was held to name the baby in 2000.
I think it’s a safe bet to say that children who have been born over the last five decades have read at least one book featuring the Berenstain Bears. The books sold almost three hundred million copies all over the world, and have been translated into 23 different languages. And, believe it or not, two Berenstain Bears television series were created as a result of the incredible popularity of the book series. Aside from the five prime time specials that aired between 1979 and 1983, the first television series was a part of CBS’ Saturday Morning line-up between 1985 and 1987, and it was the series that I remember best. Here’s the intro for the 1985 series below.
And, below this paragraph, you can watch the 2003 revamp of the series, which aired exclusively on most PBS stations.
I should note that while there were some original stories that were created specifically for the television shows, in both the 1985 and 2003 versions, the cartoons sometimes were animated adaptations of past books. If you want to you can click on the titles in this paragraph to watch an episode of each version. You can watch “The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room” from 1985, as well as “The Berenstain Bears Get The Gimmies” from 2003.
TRIVIA: Ruth Buzzi voiced Mama Bear in the 1985 version, while actor Michael Cera voiced Brother Bear in the 2003 version.
But while the Berenstain Bears series was well-loved by children, it was subject to a lot of criticism as well. Critics lambasted the series, and amongst some of the most negative adjectives that were used for the series were “syrupy”, “formulaic”, “hokey”, “abominable”, and “unsatisfying”.
Well, you know what I have to say about that? Screw the naysayers. I happen to love the Berenstain Bears. I still do at the age of 30. They were awesome books, and I can’t remember a time in which I didn’t like a Berenstain Bears book. Those bears helped me learn so much about myself. I’d like to think that they also taught me a lot of life lessons and morals along the way that made me who I am today. Over the years, the Berenstain Bears have evolved with the times. In the earliest bear stories, the bears dealt with issues such as going to the dentist or going to school for the first time, but over the years, they would also face the topics of peer pressure, cheating, poor sportsmanship, and even online bullying. And, yet, every book had Brother and Sister (and sometimes Papa and Mama too) learning something about themselves. And, the more they learned, the more we readers learned.
So, to try and come up with a list of my five favourite Berenstain Bear books is almost impossible for me to do. There were so many to choose from, and I loved every single one I read. But, in the end, I came up with these five. Maybe you’ll agree, and maybe you won’t. But, somehow, these five books always stuck with me.
1 – THE BERENSTAIN BEARS GO TO THE DOCTOR (1981)
I think that this book was the one book that allowed me to get over my fear of doctors and hospitals. I used to hate sitting in the waiting room of the doctors office, or the wait area of the emergency room at the hospital. They just always seemed like creepy places to be in. Ironically enough, the first time I ever read this book was in the waiting room for a doctor’s appointment. When I read about Brother and Sister Bear going through a doctor’s visit with a check-up, it certainly eased my fears. Seeing Brother and Sister undergoing reflex tests, and having the doctor listen to their heartbeats, and checking their ears eased my fears. And, I still state that watching Sister getting a shot without the slightest pain helped me overcome my fear of needles. After all, if Sister could get a shot without flinching, I could too. There’s also a surprise ending involving Papa Bear that made me laugh.
2 – THE BIKE LESSON (1964)
This book was actually the second book that featured the Berenstain Bears, and it happens to also be one of my all-time favourites, if for no reason being that you really felt terrible for Papa Bear. In the story, Papa Bear tries to teach Small Bear how to ride a bicycle, but all of his efforts usually lead to Papa Bear getting into one mishap after another. One mishap actually involves him getting stuck in a chimney! I’m still trying to figure out how that happened!
3 – THE BERENSTAIN BEARS AND THE TRUTH (1983)
I include this one because if memory serves me, it was the very first Berenstain Bears book that I ever read. In the book, Brother and Sister are playing ball inside the house (which is against the rules), and somehow, they end up breaking Mama’s ugly green and blue lamp into a hundred pieces. Knowing that their mother would be very upset if she knew that they had broken it, they decide to fabricate a story where a bird flies through the window and breaks the lamp. But when Brother and Sister can’t seem to get their stories straight, the lie is exposed, and the cubs learn a very valuable lesson about trust.
4 – THE BERENSTAIN BEARS AND THE IN-CROWD (1989)
I love this book because it deals with a subject that I faced several times in my youth. When a new girl named Queenie arrives at Sister’s school, Queenie makes fun of her, and tells her that she just isn’t cool. And when Sister’s friends ditch her to be just like Queenie, Sister faces the dilemma of peer pressure. Will she change herself to be just like Queenie too, or will she decide that being Sister is enough? Definitely check this book out.
5 – THE BERENSTAIN BEARS LEARN ABOUT STRANGERS (1985)
This book is just as important for parents to read along with their children, as it deals with a potentially scary subject, but is worded in a way that young children can understand. Sister Bear has always been a friendly sort, but Brother Bear worries that Sister shouldn’t talk to everybody she meets on the street. But after Sister sees a headline about missing cubs in the newspaper, Sister soon sees the world as a very scary place. It takes Mama to try and calm Sister down by informing her about strangers (using apples as a visual aid). Mama’s lesson proves to be effective for Sister and when Sister spots Brother getting into a precarious situation involving a stranger, it’s up to Sister to act. Again, I highly recommend this book to parents as a tool to educate their children on this very serious subject.
It seems almost mind-boggling to me that the Berenstain Bears have been around for fifty years! Although Stan and Jan are no longer with us, their sons have carried on the tradition, with Mike consulting on Berenstain Bears books after Stan’s death. Although there has not been a new Berenstain Bears book since 2011, I wouldn’t count out the possibility of the Berenstain children carrying on the tradition.
At least, I only hope so. The Berenstain Bears are too good to let go of.