Berenstain Bears remain faithful
New titles retain universal themes of family, integrity
Berenstain Bears author Mike Berenstain (August 19, 2011)
Brother Bear and Sister Bear are more likely to play a game of hopscotch than Angry Birds. And tweeting doesn't appear to have arrived in Bear Country as of yet.
"We deal with contemporary subjects, but the bears get around to them very late in the game," he explains. "We just did a book, 'Computer Trouble,' about computers taking over the bears' lives. Computers have been around a long time. We just got around to writing about them."
But with eight new titles and a summer book tour under way, Berenstain hopes his books connect with modern audiences through their universal themes of helping others, behaving with integrity and cherishing family.
Since their inception, Bear Country's most famous residents — Mama, Papa, Sister, Brother and Honey Bear — have represented both a respite from the real world and a road map for dealing with its challenges.
The first bear family book, "The Big Honey Hunt," appeared in 1962, a tumultuous time socially and politically. But a swarm of angry bees are the worst of the Bears' troubles in the tale of a father and his son searching for a sweet fix.
"When the characters were first made, people didn't live in trees and drive around in old jalopies," he says. "It's always been an idealized, fictional kind of imaginary world that's much simpler than real life. Even life in 1962 was more complicated than Bear Country."
Childhood, though, was a less anxious time, Berenstain contends.
"When I was a kid, we'd walk out the door and disappear for a whole day, and no one worried," says Berenstain, son of the original Berenstain Bears books' authors, Stan and Jan Berenstain. "That was pretty typical. Parents are much more protective and sheltering of their young children today. There's just so much more kids can be exposed to now."
Bear Country, the author hopes, remains a reminder of those relatively carefree days.
"We've gotten so much feedback from people who said they wanted to see those themes — the golden rule, saying your prayers — in the books," Berenstain said over lunch during a Chicago stop. "The stories dealing with family situations are by far the most popular."
Stan and Jan Berenstain launched their career as magazine and adult humor book cartoonists. They branched into children's literature — mentored by pal Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss — with some early "easy reader" books, such as "Old Hat, New Hat" and "Inside, Outside, Upside Down," mixed in with the stories about the happy little bear family. Since the publication of "The Big Honey Hunt," more than 250 Berenstain Bears books have been published and more than 260 million copies sold.
Stan died in 2005, but Mike and Jan continue to work together writing and illustrating the stories. The new releases include "Perfect Fishing Spot" and "Gossip Gang," in which Sister Bear overhears pals talking about her on the playground. All eight of the new books are part of the Living Lights series, a branch of faith-based books published by Zonderkidz that are infused with Bible verses and Christian teachings.
"As it says in the Bible, the tongue also is a fire," Fred Bear tells Sister Bear in "Gossip Gang."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Sister asks.
"Just that gossiping is like playing with fire," Fred answers. "You can get burnt."
Stan, who was raised Jewish, and Jan, who was raised Catholic, ran a fairly secular home. "But my mother raised me in a very ethical tradition," the younger Berenstain recalls. "I thought it would be nice to apply that to what we're doing with the books."
And, as always, Mama and Papa's pragmatic advice usually saves the day.
"My best advice to both of you," Papa tells the Brother and Sister in "Perfect Fishing Spot," "is to do what Mama says to do!"