'Down a Sunny Dirt Road: An Autobiography' by Stan and Jan Berenstain
Reviewed by Jabari Asim
Sunday, November 24, 2002; Page BW06
DOWN A SUNNY DIRT ROAD
By Stan and Jan Berenstain
Random House. 202 pp. $20
By now, nearly everyone who's had even a passing acquaintance with children's books has heard of the phenomenally popular Berenstain Bears. The Big Honey Hunt, the first tale to feature Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Small Bear, was published 40 years ago and sold well almost immediately. In the years following its favorable debut, the Bear family has added two more offspring and starred in more than 200 additional books.
If author-illustrators Stan and Jan Berenstain had listened to their editor, they would have stopped after just one volume. "There are already too many bears," advised Theodore Geisel, better known as the legendary Dr. Seuss. "Sendak's got some kind of a bear. There's Yogi Bear, the Three Bears, Smokey Bear, the Chicago Bears . . . for your next book you should do something as different from bears as possible."
The couple's efforts to comply are described in their charming memoir, Down a Sunny Dirt Road. Their attempts mostly involved "noodling around with a penguin character," a cute little critter who never managed to capture their imaginations as much as the bears, who soon "would sweep down on us, push everything else off our drawing tables and writing desks, and take us over, lock, stock, and honey pot."
Down a Sunny Dirt Road answers many of the questions the authors are likely to have fielded over the years, including those addressing a period that might best be described as Before the Bears.
Stan and Jan met in 1941, when both were first-year students at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. Their budding romance was challenged in its second year, when Stan was summoned to active duty in World War II. He sketched throughout his hitch, and many of the illustrations are reproduced in the memoir. Several pages are also devoted to work Jan completed during her years at art school. The examples include pencil drawings, watercolors, pastels, charcoals and oils, all impressive but hardly suggestive of the cartoony style the couple would eventually develop.
Jan took time off from school to work as a riveter during the war while Pvt. Stan Berenstain became a medical artist working with a military surgeon. Meanwhile, they grew deeper in love, writing to each other two or three times a week. After marriage in 1946, both Stan and Jan took jobs teaching art. At the same time, they struggled to break into the cartooning business. It proved tough going.
"We cranked out twelve to fifteen cartoons a week and sent them to a succession of magazines," the couple writes. "Week after week after week, we'd send them out, and week after week after week, they'd come back rejected." Stan's heart-to-heart with a magazine editor helped them change their approach -- and it proved to be a wildly successful move. "After failing to sell a single cartoon in our first year of weekly submissions, we proceeded to sell a total of 154 cartoons in our second year. We had six cartoons in one issue of The Saturday Evening Post -- a record."
Despite their success as cartoonists, the Berenstains had a tough time breaking into kids' books. The first publisher they met with was particularly discouraging, but they pressed on, drawn to a long-simmering idea. "We knew from our first noodlings that our book would be about bears. . . . We knew we'd have three characters: a bluff, overenthusiastic Papa Bear who wore bib overalls and a plaid shirt and . . . a wise Mama Bear who wore a blue dress with white polka dots . . . and a bright, lively little cub" who was a lot like their own young son.
After a first attempt that grueling rewrites and sessions with their editor failed to salvage, they came up with The Big Honey Hunt, which, they proudly note, remains in print and "is still going strong." The Bike Lesson soon followed, and the Berenstains were, in their own words, "off to the races." The Bears' look has changed somewhat over the years, but their creators' process has remained consistent. In their home studio outside Philadelphia, they bring their friendly ursines to life with No. 2 pencils, yellow legal pads, nib pens, watercolors, Winsor & Newton brushes and series 500 two-ply Bristol board. "Most of our story ideas are consciously thought up. But sometimes ideas come unbidden," they write. As an example of the latter, Jan took the phrase "inside, outside, upside down," and in the space of an afternoon transformed it into 15 pictures and 66 words. The resulting book, Inside, Outside, Upside Down, was published in 1968 and has sold more than 3 million copies.
Regardless of how they come up with the plot, the Berenstains make sure that the story revolves around a favorite theme, in which "Papa sets out to instruct Small Bear in some aspect of the art of living and ends up badly the worse for wear, with Small Bear expressing his appreciation for the fine lesson Papa has taught him." It's a winning formula that they have no intention of changing. Same goes for retiring: The 79-year-old authors end with a pledge "to keep on doing it . . . until we get it wrong." As their many fans will testify, that's not likely to happen for a long, long time. •
Jabari Asim is children's books editor of Book World.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company