Thank you Berenstains.

If you’ve ever picked up a Berenstain Bear children’s book, this sentence will be familiar.
“This way to bear country, you’ll know when you’re there, as soon as you enter, you’ll feel like a bear”.
On occasion I change bear to beer, depending on how the day’s going.

The first little traveler was two when a girlfriend of mine arrived at the door with a copy of “Moving Day”. It was perfect timing. I’d just arrived home with a brand new second little traveler and we had three weeks to pack up and get ready to move to Libya – to say things were a little pear shaped at our house would be an understatement. Although we weren’t living in a tree house in Bear Country, (we were in a bungalow in Kuala Lumpur) – there were obvious similarities. Mama Bear and I were facing the same questions. What happens to my toys? Where will I sleep? How will I say goodbye to my friends? Simple questions that require simplistic answers that a two year old can deal with. By the time we landed in Libya I could recite the book without needing to look at the pages.

Of course we already knew the Berenstain Bears well, we’d met them six months earlier when they were expecting a new baby. What a coincidence, so were we! The first little traveler noticed that she and brother bear had a lot in common. It was getting hard to find space to sit on mother bear’s lap and people kept suggesting that it was probably time to move from a little bed to a big bed. When Mama bear said “You outgrew it – just in time” I congratulated her on her subtlety, so much better than “get out of the cot, the replacement baby is coming and we need it”. 
Although, there were a few things the Bears did differently. Mama Bear didn’t go to hospital to have her baby, she very conveniently popped it out while the other bears were busy outside making the new bed, she was back in her frock and whipping up dinner before they’d even managed to nail the headboard on to the base. It was possibly situations such as these that brought criticism to the Berenstains.
The Bernstains, on occasion copped a bit of flack for their simplistic attitudes. There was a definite format to their stories, the children would have a problem and often Papa Bear would do a reasonably disastrous job at dealing with it, only to have Mama Bear quietly come in and save the day. We all knew Mama Bear was the smart one and Papa Bear was good with his hands. Papa Bear was once reported as being the “Alan Alda of grizzlies, a wimp so passive and fumbling he makes Dagwood Bumstead look like Batman”. In the same article Mama Bear was described as “the final flowering of the grade-school prissy, the one with perfect posture and impeccable handwriting”.
Ouch! Such criticism for a family of bears who’s average reader is anywhere between three and six years old.
It’s a format we’ve all seen before. Mr Cunningham on Happy Days, Homer Simpson, and Billy Ray Cyrus on Hannah Montana are all bumbling fathers that have their child’s best interest at heart. It could be argued that the difference with the Berenstain Bears is that they’re aimed at very young children – and simplicity is often not a choice at this age, but more a requirement. Stan Berenstein often said that Papa Bear was modeled on himself.
As the years have gone by the bears have encouraged discussion on a few different topics, we’ve eaten too much junk food with the bears, we’ve been to the dentist and talked about stranger danger. Sure, the bears could have been a bit more PC, maybe Mama Bear should have balanced a full time career with motherhood. She did try to get back to work at one stage but found it all very hard to manage, some would say it was shortsighted, others would identify it as their reality. There was no way she could keep up with it all, she was cooking, cleaning, gardening, counseling and building – something had to give. I like to think of Mama Bear as a feminist bear who exercised her choices and I guess the bears were just lucky they had their own veggie garden to feed themselves and a good community for support.
When I clicked on the Washington Post story this morning and read of Jan Berenstains passing, I’ll admit I sighed out loud. I know the Berenstains will continue, but now that both Jan and her husband are gone it feels like the end of an era. With a five year old that is now only shuffling through the bookshelf looking for the Berenstains sporadically, it almost feels like we’re finishing up together.
With over 300 titles and 260 million copies sold in 23 languages, as well as the Berenstain franchise that has encompassed two television series and a wide variety of other products, I think it’s safe to say the Bears knew their audience.  I, for one, am very happy that in 1941, when Janice Grant met Stanley Berenstain at their first day of art school they chose bears to draw because they were “easy”.
Thank you Berenstains.

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  1. Sine Thieme says

    Beautiful tribute, thank you. I too spent many  a reading session with a kid and a Berenstain Bears book on a pregnant lap and am now wistfully looking at those books when passing the kids bookshelves, because they are mostly ignored now…

  2. Sigh…the Berenstain Bears were well known in our house – Mama’s pregnant lap was one of the first books I thought of when I started reading this article – and helped us address lots of growing-up issues.   I’ll have to ask my teenage boys if either of them even remembers those books – I loved them!

  3. I ha completely forgotten about the Berenstain Bears, will introduce them to me daughter this month. A beautifully written semi-tribute, semi-walk down memory lane.

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