By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Stan Berenstain, who helped teach generations of children to read with the Berenstain Bears series of books he created with his wife, died Nov. 26 of complications from cancer at his home in Bucks County, Pa. He was 82.
Beginning in 1962 with the first title in their series about a lovable family of bears, "The Big Honey Hunt," the Berenstains found a formula that drew millions of young readers and propelled their books into one of the most successful franchises in children's literature. In the past 43 years, the husband-and-wife team wrote and illustrated approximately 250 books about the bears.
More than 260 million copies have been sold, and the Berenstain Bears have branched out into two television series, videos, stage musicals, toys, cereal and other products. Mr. Berenstain and his family managed the entire enterprise by themselves until 1997, when they hired an employee to run the computer.
Pitched primarily toward children ages 4 to 8, the books introduced vocabulary and gentle moral lessons. The bear family originally consisted of a father, mother and one son, but over the years the den expanded with a girl cub. (Sister Bear, always wearing pink overalls, liked to play with her "Bearbie" doll.) The family lived in a cozy, five-story treehouse.
Distinguished by relatively sophisticated plots and character development, the Berenstain books sometimes addressed such social issues as the environment, working mothers and drugs, but for the most part they were built around the events of everyday life: visiting the dentist, doing homework and cleaning a bedroom.
Mr. Berenstain and his wife often produced 10 or more 32-page books a year, not all of which were met with glee. Some critics objected to the traditional, old-fashioned family structure, with a bumbling woodworker father and a stay-at-home mom who finds solutions to the problems her sweetly wayward cubs stumble into. Others claimed to see encoded political messages in Papa Bear's lethargy.
"I hate the Berenstain Bears," Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer fumed in 1989. "The raging offense of the Berenstains is the post-feminist Papa Bear, the Alan Alda of grizzlies, a wimp so passive and fumbling he makes Dagwood Bumstead look like Batman."
In 1996, Mr. Berenstain told The Post: "We've gotten unkind letters complaining that we are emasculating the men in the family. The absolute truth is that Papa Bear is based on me."
One of the Berenstains' early editors complained that the bear family's clothing, language and general mores were several decades out of date: "It's just not that way in the real world."
"But that's the way it is in Bear Country," the Berenstains replied.
Stanley Berenstain was born Sept. 29, 1923, in Philadelphia. He met his wife, Janice Grant, in 1941 on the first day of drawing class at the old Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. They often went to the zoo for drawing exercises, where they sometimes sketched bears.
Mr. Berenstain served in a field artillery unit in World War II and, later in the war, became a medical illustrator. After their marriage in 1946, the Berenstains embarked on a joint career as cartoonists, eventually becoming regulars in the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and the Saturday Review.
In 1956, they began a popular cartoon called "It's All in the Family," featuring seven captioned drawings on one page, which ran in McCall's and Good Housekeeping magazines. Their first book, called "The Berenstains' Baby Book" (1951), derived from their experiences raising their first son.
After an editor suggested that they give children's books a try, they struck on the idea of a family of bears, but it took two years of tweaking before they could please their editor at Random House, Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Geisel edited the first 17 books in the series, advising the Berenstains on drawing, character and rhyme.
In the years since that initial effort, the Berenstains have never run out of topics for their bears, ranging from bad dreams and teasing to jealousy, fear of the dark and even the question of God. They launched spinoff books for children ages 9 to 12 and a series in which their cubs are detectives, or "Bear Scouts." Two subjects that never entered the child's dreamland of Bear Country were divorce and death.
"We take what we do very seriously," Mr. Berenstain told The Post in 1996. "But we can't solve all the world's problems in 32 pages."
Survivors include his wife of 59 years; two sons, writer Leo Berenstain and artist Michael Berenstain, who will continue the family enterprise with their mother; a sister; and four grandchildren.