This week’s entry: Berenstain Bears
What it’s about: Anyone who’s had or been a child in the last 40 years is no doubt either delighted by or utterly sick of the Berenstain Bears, a long-running children’s book series, TV series, and perpetually-in-development movie about a family of anthropomorphic ursines who learn valuable life lessons, like “Don’t name your kids ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister’,” and “It’s spelled -a-i-n, dammit!” Since publishing The Big Honey Hunt in 1962, husband-and-wife authors Jan and Stan Berenstain have published over 300 titles (their son Mike took over the series in 2012 following his mother’s death; Stan had died in 2005). While the series has held enduring popularity for the preschool set, adults have criticized the series as cloying and formulaic. Critics have called the series everything from “the [series] that makes us dread the bedtime routine,” to “timeless, timely, and kind-hearted, like all the best literature.”
Strangest fact: The Bears were very nearly smothered in their infancy by Dr. Seuss. Metaphorically. The Berenstains’ editor on their early books was Theodor Geisel, known to readers as Dr. Seuss, and known to his writers as sick of bears. After The Big Honey Hunt, Geisel complained, “There are already too many bears… Yogi Bear, the Three Bears, Smokey Bear, the Chicago Bears… you should do something as different from bears as possible.” The Berenstains took his advice and started work on a book about a penguin, but Geisel relented. “We’re selling the hell out of the bear book.” So the bear family was back in 1964’s The Bike Lesson, with many, many more to follow.
Biggest controversy: Geisel wasn’t the only one sick of bears. In 1989, The Washington Post published a Charles Krauthammer editorial called “Drown The Berenstain Bears,” saying “the smugness and complacency of the stories… is so irritating.” The Post hadn’t revised their opinion 16 years later when, upon the death of Stan Berenstain, Paul Farhi wrote, “Where is the warmth, the spirit of discovery and imagination in Bear Country? Stan Berenstain taught a million lessons to children, but subtlety and plain old joy weren’t among them.” Slate had even less respect for the dead, as following Jan’s death, Hanna Rosin wrote, “As any right-thinking mother will agree, good riddance.” (She later apologized.)
Thing we were happiest to learn: Saccharine or not, the Bear family’s lessons seem to be universal. Besides translations of the books around the world, the second of two Berenstain Bears animated series (which ran on PBS from 2003 to 2004) was the first cartoon translated into a Native American language. The Lakota Language Consortium had the series dubbed into Lakota, for broadcast on PBS stations in North and South Dakota. The Berenstains waived all licensing fees.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: There’s no separation of church and bears. While Jan and Stan kept things secular, Mike Berenstain has released several overtly religious Berenstain books, including The Berenstain Bears: God Loves You, The Berenstain Bears Say Their Prayers, and even a Berenstain Bears Bible. Wikipedia doesn’t specify, but we’re going to assume it features more talking bears than the King James Bible. In 2012, gay rights advocates pressured Berenstain to discontinue a kids’ meal promotion with Chick-Fil-A, then under fire for publicly attacking marriage equality. (Berenstain did not pull the promotion.)
Also noteworthy: The series has been criticized as formulaic, but the Berenstains had been very open about the formula: “Papa sets out to instruct Small Bear [later renamed Brother] in some aspect of the art of living and ends up badly the worse for wear.” Invariably, Mama Bear comes to the rescue and teaches the book’s lesson. As editor of the early series, Geisel wanted more characterization (“What kind of pipe tobacco does Papa Bear smoke?”), but when he asked his authors to describe the relationship between Papa and Small Bear, Stan responded, “Well, he’s the father and he’s the son.” And that complicated relationship has sold over 240 million books.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Before coming up with their winning ursine formula, the Berenstains were illustrators-for-hire, working for numerous magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post. The general-interest magazine was an American institution, publishing from 1821 until 1969 (and claimed to be a revival of The Pennsylvania Gazette, an 18th century newspaper once owned by Benjamin Franklin), and is best known for frequently featuring the work of painter Norman Rockwell.
Further down the wormhole: Besides TV and computer-game adaptations, the Bears were also the subject of a 2011 off-Broadway musical, The Berenstain Bears LIVE! In Family Matters, The Musical, which won a Tony for unnecessarily longest name. Broadway is, of course, in New York City, and one of the most identifiable parts of that city, loved and feared in equal measure, is the New York City Subway. We’ll head underground and take a ride next week.