Stan Berenstain's Honey-Coated Medicine
Thursday, December 1, 2005
Sit down, kids, Papa has some bad news. Stan Berenstain, the man who created the Berenstain Bears children's books with his wife, Jan, has died at the age of 82. Dying is bad, children, because people miss the deceased and feel sad. Okay, now go to bed.
And that, in effect, is Stan Berenstain's legacy: The retailing of simple moral declarations, pat and amusing lessons for the "Sesame Street" set, all dressed up with colorful, ready-for-Saturday-morning-TV cartoons. There's right, there's wrong, and in Bear Country, everything will turn out fine once you know the difference.
From this simple formula Stan and Jan Berenstain created an empire. The Berenstains may have been the world's most successful creators of children's books, and surely rank among the most prolific. Over 43 years, beginning with "The Big Honey Hunt," they assembly-lined 250 Berenstain Bear titles, selling some 260 million at last count. Perhaps inevitably, there were Berenstain Bears cereals and chocolates and animated TV shows. Mama, Papa, Brother and Sister Bear are an all but inescapable part of childhood now.
It's no coincidence that the Berenstains succeeded in an age of parental anxiety and familial dislocation. The secret of their work is that it is at least as reassuring and instructive to moms and dads as it is to young children. The Berenstains' rigid problem-solution plots, and problem-solving prescriptions, are straightforward and without nuance, cut and dried, spinach with a dash of sugar. That is especially valuable to new parents, who can live without nuance.
The stories reinforce what used to be known as "common sense," when common sense was much more common and parents had fewer doubts about their roles and abilities. The Bears had something to say about just about everything. No childhood moral dilemma, no adjustment issue or social conflict was out of their purview (well, okay, divorce and death -- the Berenstains never touched those subjects).
Bad dreams? Bad manners? Bad hair days? The Bears had all that covered. Too much junk food? Too much TV? The Bears were rolling on those subjects, too. New baby? Peer pressure? Bullying? Going to the dentist? On top of it. The Bears even weighed in on tougher stuff, like drugs and guns at school.
Grimm's fairy tales, the Mother Goose rhymes, the entire canon is all about darkness. There's always a witch, a monster under the bed, a troll beneath the bridge. The Berenstains' fears are far more literal, just close enough to reality to make a young cub quake that this, in fact, could happen to me.
The Berenstains certainly knew their niche. Almost every title stays within a narrow framework -- the main characters, plot structure and setting are timeless and familiar. The traditional nuclear Bear family inhabits a treehouse, down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country. Mama endlessly tends house; Papa is some kind of woodworker, and hangs around a lot. The kids play odd Depression-era games -- double-dutch jump-rope, jacks, hopscotch. And everyone wears the same outmoded clothes -- Papa in his plaid yellow shirt and blue overalls, Mama in her polka-dot housedress and cap, Brother in red shirt and bluejeans, Sister in pink overalls (Stan and Jan, who illustrated and wrote the stories, resisted calls over the years to update the duds).
But conflict, anxiety and occasional danger stalk this seemingly safe and secure world. The action usually starts when the kids face a problem. They turn to Papa, who offers a "solution" that only makes the problem -- or the kids' fears about it -- even worse. Enter Mama, who eventually sets everyone straight.
It's not that there's anything morally objectionable about what the Berenstains teach. The values in the books actually are timeless and rock-solid. Moderation. Cleanliness. Respect, for oneself and for each other. Manners are good, dishonesty and deception are bad.
There is, however, always something off in the Bear Family, and his name was Papa. More than just a comic figure, he is the Negative Example by which his family learns its lesson. Stan Berenstain has said that he modeled Papa after himself, but Papa is really a stock character, a Dagwood Bumstead or Ralph Kramden for the pre-kindergarten set. And the stories delight in proving him wrong.
That has always been the smaller of the criticisms about Stan and Jan Berenstain's stories: That by depicting dads as doofuses, they undercut the very parental authority and wisdom they seek to embrace. Can young children accept the Berenstains' teachings without noticing a parallel message amid all the moralizing -- that dads are dummies who are better off ignored?
The larger questions about the popularity of the Berenstain Bears are more troubling: Is this what we really want from children's books in the first place, a world filled with scares and neuroses and problems to be toughed out and solved? And if it is, aren't the Berenstain Bears simply teaching to the test, providing a lesson to be spit back, rather than one lived and understood and embraced?
Where is the warmth, the spirit of discovery and imagination in Bear Country? Stan Berenstain taught a million lessons to children, but subtlety and plain old joy weren't among them.