Happy 50th Berenstain Bears!
Two of the most famous kids in children’s literature will be visiting their friends in Ashland and Boyd County later this month.
Most kids – and their parents – have grown up with the affable Berenstain Bear family, learning about a litany of issues, from bullying to obesity, to visiting the dentist, along the way.
Brother Bear and Sister Bear are making a special visit to the Kyova Branch on Saturday, Nov. 17, at 2 p.m. (The first 50 will get a free copy of the Berenstain Bears’ Thanksgiving book). The Berenstain siblings will be sticking around a extra few days, so they can walk with BCPL staff in the Ashland Christmas Parade on Tuesday, Nov. 20. And, a few other surprise storybook characters will be joining them!
Before you meet Brother and Sister, you might like to learn a little bit about the Berenstain family, and their significance on the world of children’s literature during the past 50 years.
It’s been exactly half a century since the first of more than 300 Berenstain Bear titles was published.
But you actually have to go back more than 70 years, to when Janice Grant met Stanley Berenstain on the first day of their drawing class at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They were briefly separated during World War II, but got married in 1946 and soon began working together on illustrations and cover art for various magazines. Their first joint publishing venture was a humorous look at raising their son in 1951.
Jan and Stan Berenstain started writing for children in the early 1960s. They said they chose bears as the main characters because the animal could be drawn easily, and because, according to Stan, female bears are “terrifyingly good mothers” and male bears are “lousy fathers.”
Their first bear story featured a Papa Bear, Mama Bear and a son, and was titled “Freddy’s First Spanking.” The manuscript went to Random House, where it landed on the desk of a new editor named Theodor Geisel. You may know him better as Dr. Seuss.
Geisel worked with Jan and Stan for the next two years, and the book was finally published in 1962 under the title, “The Big Honey Hunt.” At that point, there were no plans for a sequel. In fact, Geisel, aka Seuss, told the authors to find a different animal for their next story because “there’s already too many bears.” So, Jan and Stan started working on a book about penguins – until Geisel called them up and said the bear book was selling like crazy.
The second bear book, “The Bike Lesson,” was published in 1964, with the name “Berenstain Bears” added to the cover (Geisel’s idea).
The early books featured an only child, Small Bear (who later became Brother Bear). Sister Bear joined the family in 1974, and baby Honey Bear was announced in 2000, along with a reader contest to name her.
Each of the 1100-word stories follows a similar pattern: Papa Bear sets out to instruct on some aspect of life, and it ends up going badly. Mama Bear eventually sets it all straight, and the kids still express their appreciation for Papa’s lesson.
Some have criticized the book series for its formulaic storytelling, but others praise it as a “wonderful and lasting contribution to children’s literature.” You can’t argue with its success: over 260 million copies of the books, in 23 languages; two television series, five animated TV specials, computer games and other learning software. The Berenstain Bears franchise has been licensed to more than 40 companies for more than 150 types of products.
The Berenstain Bears is also the first animated series to be translated into a Native American language in the United States. Just last year, 20 episodes were dubbed with Native American Lakota language and started airing in North and South Dakota as “The Compassionate Bear Family.”
Stan Berenstain died in 2005, and Jan in 2011. Their sons, Leo and Michael, now run the family business.
Though 50 years old, the Berenstain Bears are staying on top of current trends. They recently put out an app for the iPad and iPhone that combines the books’ original illustrations with optional narration.