Few American youngsters finish elementary school without taking a walk “down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country” and getting to know Mrs. Berenstain’s treehouse-dwelling ursine family — hapless Papa in his overalls, wise Mama in her polka-dot dress and kerchief, and their three archetypal children.
Since the release in 1962 of the first Berenstain Bears volume, “The Big Honey Hunt,” the series has sold about 260 million books. Those books have been translated into almost two dozen languages and have inspired television shows, amusement park rides, McDonald’s Happy Meal collectibles and animal crackers made in the bears’ images.
Over the years, the Berenstains drew criticism for promoting long-outmoded gender roles and overly simple life lessons. But readers who love Bear Country consider it a place not unlike Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood, where a fixed storytelling routine and familiar characters bring comfort to children as they seek to navigate a world that becomes ever more complicated as they grow up.
In their books, Mrs. Berenstain and her husband seldom allowed the bear cubs to face more than one hurdle or affliction at a time. Over the years, they encountered a new baby, the first day of school, a trip to the dentist, bullies, stage fright, fear of the dark and jealousy — just a few episodes in the history of the Berenstain Bears family.
The books reinforced the sorts of lessons most parents try to impart on their children: Dentists aren’t as scary as they may seem, bullies aren’t as strong as they look, stage fright can be surmounted.
Bear Country morality was based largely on the Golden Rule rather than on religion. (Mrs. Berenstain was Episcopalian; her husband was Jewish.) Young readers closed Berenstain Bears books having learned that life is better when you are nice to others, and also when you keep a tidy bedroom.
Much of the wisdom contained in the Berenstain Bears books come from Mama Bear. Her relationship with Papa Bear, a sort of blundering foil, was occasionally attacked by critics. In a 1989 column in The Washington Post, columnist Charles Krauthammer called Papa Bear “the Alan Alda of Grizzlies, a wimp so passive and fumbling he makes Dagwood Bumstead look like Batman.”
The Berenstains often said that the Berenstain Bears parents were based on themselves. When Stan Berenstain died, Mrs. Berenstain told the New York Times that her husband had no qualms about Papa Bear.
“Nobody likes making a mother the fall guy,” she said. “Papa Bear has broad shoulders.”
Janice Marian Grant was born July 26, 1923, in Philadelphia, where she met Stanley Berenstain on the first day of art school. During their classes, they often went to the zoo and drew — among other animals — bears.