Jan Berenstain, RIP

Jan Berenstain, co-creator of the Berenstain Bears with her husband Stan, has died at the age of 88.

When she was 3 and 4 my daughter couldn’t get enough of the retro-Berenstain collection at Grandma and Grandpa’s, the books I read long ago in the 60s and 70s. Even though she asked for them a gazillion times, even at my weariest I appreciated how zippy these books are – not too many words on a page, and lots of action. At nearly-six the boss is still quite entertained by them, though these old titles are a lot more alarming than the newer ones. (Papa Bear gets banged up pretty good, thanks to his own boneheadedness!)

    Actually, Homer Simpson, the quintessential dufus dad, has a definite predecessor in Papa Bear, and his habit of carelessly endangering everyone around him. (Check out The Bike Lesson, wherein Papa rides down the wrong side of the road and causes a hilarious multi-car pileup.)

The later books and cartoon series, which added a girl cleverly named “Sister”, dialled down Papa’s recklessness and amped up the educational content. (Previously the main lessons to be learned were things like “don’t stick your hand into a beehive” and “don’t ride your bike off a cliff”.)

    When Stan died in 2005, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote a rather negative article about the legacy of the Berenstain Bears:

The Berenstains’ rigid problem-solution plots, and problem-solving prescriptions, are straightforward and without nuance, cut and dried, spinach with a dash of sugar. … 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.

Pretty harsh, with some truth to it, but this same criticism can also be levelled at many (all?) of the major children’s book/cartoon franchises around today. As he thoughtfully puts it, shows and books of this nature are more successful at reassuring anxious parents than kids.

Another point he makes is the undermining of parental authority with the old dad-as-dummy plots, which I don’t quite buy. When the first books came out, in the early 1960s, dufus dad wasn’t quite the cliché that he is in today’s sitcom culture. He was probably even a bit of a new thing back then. And besides, children have been entertained for decades by stories about adult authority figures who are dumber than the kids. In these early books little cub manages just fine despite his dad’s ineptitude, even rescuing the old man from time to time, and that only heightens the delight of young readers.

Whether or not you agree with Farhi, his article is aimed squarely at the latter books and tv series. My recommendation is this: for sheer Roadrunneresque anarchy, dig out the old books! Whether stealing a boat, getting struck by lightning, or breaking nearly every bone in his body at scout camp, Papa Bear is always good for a laugh.

As a parent I’m not a huge fan of the Berenstain Bears, though I do remember finding those old books pretty funny. These days my favourite title doesn’t have much to do with the iconic bear family at all. Bears in the Night features a family of numerous small bears who sneak out of bed to investigate a mysterious noise and get a good (harmless) scare. A great ‘first reader’ with a repetitive pattern that kids will enjoy (“out the window, down the tree, over the fence, around the lake, through the woods…”, that kind of thing).

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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