The Good News Berenstains Bring Joy into Kids' Lives with Their Furry Alter Egos
Mother Bear/ put your apron away./ We are going to go/ on a picnic today!
The Berenstain Bears are off on a search for the perfect spot in the country, led as always by Papa Bear, the Ralph Kramden of literary animals. A bumbling but benign dreamer, he is followed closely by the forbearing Mama Bear and good-natured Small Bear. In the end, despite Papa's mismanagement, they have their picnic, but in the meantime...well, that's a surprise (if you're 4, that is).
Any resemblance between the bears and their creators, Jan and Stan Berenstain, is relentlessly deliberate. While the Berenstains, both 55, have collaborated on text and illustrations for 45 books, the 23 in the Bear series, which have sold more than 25 million copies in 14 nations, are a loving reflection of their marital mismatch.
"Through the years, the Bears have taken over our personalities," says Stan. "Jan's the quiet supervising Mama. I'm more like Papa Bear; I tend to get these great schemes and then fall on my face." "He is more volatile," adds Jan. "I'm shy."
Stan, "a 133-pound Jewish boy," and Jan, "an Episcopalian from the suburbs" (his descriptions), have been collaborating since 1941, when they met in a class at the Philadelphia College of Art. ("She had on white loafers, a baggy sweater, a gray wool skirt and knee socks," Stan recalls. "But her drawing was marvelous.") They diverted one another with risqué cartoons and when they later saw the courting-crisis skits of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on TV, says Stan, they recognized the routine. "He liked her because she had class; she liked him because he had crudity."
They married in 1946 after a three-year wartime cartoon correspondence. Stan's job in the Army was to make detailed drawings of plastic surgery reconstruction of combat victims. (Jan had worked 54 hours a week as a riveter.) They settled above an Army-Navy store in Philadelphia owned by Stan's father. "We were Depression kids, so we were used to having our parents at home," says Jan. Her father worked as a carpenter (Papa Bear, not surprisingly, makes furniture for Small Bear and Sister, who came on the scene in 1974), and her mother was a stenographer ("She made me feel girls could do what they wanted").
After a slow first year that brought in only $800 for their cartooning, the Berenstains submitted a sketch based on one of their experiences with the newly popular frozen foods. A woman sitting at the dinner table shows her husband a bandaged finger: "I cut it on some frozen broccoli," the caption read.
It sold, and that began a cartooning career, heavy on domestic plots, for magazines like Look, the Saturday Evening Post and Better Homes and Gardens. They also drew 20 covers for Collier's and spent 14 years as feature cartoonists for McCall's. "They've never repeated themselves," says John Mack Carter, editor of Good Housekeeping, which has carried the Berenstains' work since 1970. "And yet they keep coming up with an endless number of funny stories."
"They pick up from each other," explains Arthur De Costa, a Philadelphia painter and an old friend. "They're really intellectuals of considerable depth and have become social critics, but they have that gift of being able to re-tune their talent to make it commercially successful."
The Berenstains have two sons, Leo, now 30 and a doctoral candidate in ecology studies, and Michael, 27, an artist. "When our kids were young," Jan recalls, "they kept asking us to bring them funny books. Pretty soon we ran out of books to buy." That dilemma was behind their venture into Bear country in 1962; there was a commercial angle too. The general circulation magazine market was dwindling—Collier's died in 1956—and, Stan says, "I could see great cartoonists becoming real estate salesmen.
"We wanted a good animal family that could teach things to children painlessly," Stan adds, "and naturally alliteration with our names helped." Since then the Bear books have kept pace with the times. Most of the plots are variations on Berenstain family experiences. The Bike Lesson shows Papa Bear giving Small Bear a bicyle but then refusing to let him use it until after a paternal demonstration of riding technique. The Berenstain Bears' New Baby deals with pregnancy and sibling rivalry. One of the latest, Papa's Pizza, is a "scratch and sniff" book because children can smell the ingredients when they scratch the pictures. It features Papa as the home-maker, a reflection of Stan's new interest in cooking.
The Bears are big business and royalty checks from the books, records, film strips and stuffed animals provide Mama and Papa Berenstain with a six-figure income, a decidedly uncavelike home in Bucks County, Pa. and a cottage on the Jersey Shore.
Their life, though, remains simple ("we don't even begin to live up to our income," Stan says), and they spend most of their time behind drafting tables. As a rule, Jan does the pencil sketches, Stan inks them in and they work together on the text. Occasionally they disagree, but then invoke the "U.N. rule"—either partner can veto an idea without further explanation.
"We're serious about being funny," explains Jan, and they also have written funny-serious books like How to Teach Your Children About Sex Without Making a Complete Fool of Yourself. "We wanted to do family humor for children so they could understand the frustrations of dealing with parents, and how concerned parents are with doing a good job." Now the couple is working on a cartoon book of sex information for teenagers.
Skeptical friends marvel at the Berenstains' partnership and often ask what happens when they argue. They don't fight; they "agree violently," says Stan. Besides, explains Jan, "if we broke up, who would get custody of the Bears?"