If you’re of a certain age, and I mention a cartoon family of bears — Papa, Mama, Sister, Brother, Honey — you know I’m talking about the Berenstain Bears.
Stan and Jan Berenstain entertained and delighted children — and their parents — for generations, until their passing a few years ago.
I met the Berenstains in 2003, and I’m delighted to be able to tell you that they were every bit as humble, gentle, and good-humored as the characters that millions have grown to cherish.
“We have a rhyme that we use: ‘A little bit furrier about the torso, but just like people, only moreso.’ And that’s what kids respond to. They see themselves and their moms and their dads in our books. We didn’t plan it that way, but that’s just how it worked out.”
Stan and Jan Berenstain published their first Berenstain Bears book when John F. Kennedy was president, 1962. By the time I met them, they had published nearly 300 books.
BT: Did you ever wish you had done frogs, or turtles, or rabbits instead of bears?
Stan: “Never once. A kid once said, why did you do bears? And we said, well, they sort of stand up and they dress ’em up in clothes in circuses. And he said, why didn’t you do monkeys? I
Jan: “It’s fun to draw bears, too. They stand up
BT: The kids that you are writing for now are different from the kids you were writing for when I was a kid and reading you for the first time.
Stan: “Sure. Funny thing is, we’ve forgotten some of the more basic questions and issues. We’re just doing a book about bedtime. You’d think that would be the first thing we’d do. It’s called ‘The Bedtime Battle.’ And we’re just going to do a book about chores. We thought we’d used up all the basic subjects, but apparently… Jan says there’s no end to first-time inexperience.”
Jan: “First-time experiences. Life is a series of first-time experiences. Like, I locked myself out of the house for the first time recently. Now, can we do a kids’ book about getting locked out of the house? A little bit scary…”
Stan: “Some kids would like it, they’d like getting locked out.”
BT: Do you get ideas for books from fans, from kids?
Stan: “Yes! We got one just the other day called, ‘Mama’s Bad Day.'”
BT: Oh, I can see where that’s going!
Stan: “Some of them, though, are wonderfully interesting but not very practical: ‘The Berenstain Bears Go To Las Vegas And Break The Bank.’ That’s a real one. ‘The Berenstain Bears Learn To Do Karate And Beat Up All The Bullies In The World.’ We get a lot of those.”
BT: Are you able to deal with topics like that? Can you reassure smaller children?
Stan: “It’s difficult. We wanted to do a book about bullies, it’s such an omnipresent, perpetual problem, but we couldn’t think of how to do it. And then Jan or I or [our son] Michael or somebody thought of the idea of a girl bully, which isn’t quite as threatening, beating up Sister Bear. So when Brother Bear goes to protect her, he can’t hit a girl.
“The subject is there, and the principles are there. but it’s a difficult subject.”
In 2002, the Berenstains turned over authorship of some of their books to their son Michael. Stan died in 2005 at age 82. When Jan Berenstain died in 2012 at age 89, Michael took over full authorship — and today the Berenstain Bears live on.