“The cubs knew how really serious the situation must be. Papa had used three figures of speech and knocked over a chair.”
— The Berenstain Bears, The Trouble With Money
Jan Berenstain, who with her husband Stan Berenstain wrote and illustrated the Berenstain Bears children’s books, passed away Monday at the age of 88. According to the Associated Press’s story, she left more than 300 titles in her wake.
I didn’t make it through all three hundred, but I fondly remember the score of Berenstain Bears books that crammed my shelves, dispensing warm, old-fashioned wisdom over the course of a few brightly-illustrated pages. Jan’s pen-strokes brought to life Mama Bear, in her blue polka-dotted dress and cap; Papa Bear, in his overalls and hat; Brother Bear, in his red shirt; Sister Bear, whose predilection for pink polka dots continues — unfortunately, some might say — to inform my fashion sense.
They weren’t fashion-forward or avant-garde, but they scarcely needed to be. And there was a startling amount of warmth and life, in both the drawings and the descriptions. The honey looked delicious. The morals were simple to digest, with just enough sugar to help the medicine slide down.
It’s hard to extricate the books of childhood from childhood itself. Going back, the scale is always off. The mountains are molehills; the glacial aeons before summer vacation pass before you have time to buy baseball tickets; the sturdy, massive trees you climbed shake when you put a hand on them. With books, those tiny worlds within the world of childhood, the same can be true. The pages turn too quickly. The characters are too broadly sketched. The chapters are shorter. The jokes don’t go over.
That treehouse full of bears was distinct and colorful as few other worlds from the same era managed to be. So it was with trepidation that I pored over them in the years that followed. And I found myself still marveling at the deftness with which Mama Bear and Papa Bear tackled everything from bullying (have your brother teach you boxing! And keep in mind that your bully might have a tough home life) to saving and spending money (do both, in moderation) to dealing with procrastination and lying (it’s never too late to correct a mistake).
The Berenstain Bears went through it all. They got Stage Fright, the Gimmies, head colds, watched too much television, went trick-or-treating. I vividly recall The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers, which managed to find a sane path between the sensational headlines of stranger danger (“Silly Goose Missing. Wily Fox Questioned”) to point out that most people are good, but because of the few bad apples in every barrel, you have to exercise prudence.
The lessons were all like that.
If you break a lamp, don’t make up an elaborate story about a flying bird with strange feathers. Mama Bear will be disappointed.
Appearances can be deceiving.
If you start a club, make certain Girls are Allowed.
It was gentle, family humor — the kind, Ms. Berenstain said, that travels well.
The bears were a fixture of many childhoods. Even Charles Krauthammer, who hated the Berenstain Bears so much that he went on a vitriolic spree against them in print, had to admit: kids love them.
This is one of the times the kids have the right idea and Charles Krauthammer does not. They were books about doing the right thing and enjoying yourself in moderation, not about post-Feminist Alan Alda types, or whatever esoteric bogeymen you care to conjure up.
And they hold up well — never so in style that they went out of fashion. Timeless, timely, and kind-hearted, like all the best literature. Thank you, Jan Berenstain.