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It takes a certain kind of power couple to create a children’s picture book series that has successfully transcended generations. That is exactly what Stanley Melvin Berenstain (September 29, 1923 – November 26, 2005) and Janice Marian Berenstain (née Grant; July 26, 1923 – February 24, 2012) managed to do, all while maintaining a long, solid marriage and raising a family of their own. Their last name is so familiar because they are the original co-authors of the Berenstain Bears book series (and yes, that’s Berenstain, not Berenstein).
Stan and Jan were both Philadelphia-born and in 1941, they met while studying together at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts. At the time, the academy was not necessarily producing children’s book illustrators but rather medical and engineering artists for the army. Still, despite the setting not being necessarily romantic, Stan and Jan fell in love. They married five years later on April 17, 1946.
They were a pair of artistic souls who’d both been involved in the WWII effort, and they had enough in common and enough life experiences to unite as co-creators as well as spouses. But their topic of choice was not war but rather the everyday occurrences of domesticity and rearing happy, healthy, and responsible children. In 1962, the very first Berenstain Bears book came out under the title The Big Honey Hunt, published by Beginner Books. It was a breakthrough. The public was hooked and Theodor Geisel (also known as Dr. Seuss), who’d co-founded Beginner Books, had essentially just published his own rivals in the arena of children’s literature.
And who in the past half-century hasn’t been charmed by this wholesome family of Grizzly bears? The characters are not given conventional names but they’re certainly memorable: Mama Bear, Papa Q. Bear, Brother Bear, Sister Bear, and baby Honey Bear. They’re a nuclear family unit who live simply, spend a lot of time together, and love each other dearly. A child learning to read and following their adventures, mishaps, squabbles, dramas, and reconciliations can easily feel as though they’re a part of the Berenstain family. This series, along with the works of Dr. Seuss and Canadian author Robert Munsch, makes up a satisfactory early learner’s education.
The Berenstains (the authors, not the bears) can take credit for the brave creative choice to depict a flawed and realistic family with real issues. There is no fairytale perfectionism or evil, just a regular family that sometimes gets on each other’s nerves but always makes up in the end. This writer, who grew up reading the stories, remembers a particular book where Mama Bear gets so fed up with her children’s messy rooms that she goes in with a garbage bin and starts throwing out everything she can get her hands on to her children’s loud protests and distress. There is also a book, which has stuck in this writer’s mind, about the dangers of a family overscheduling themselves and creating too much stress, which really speaks to the chronically busy family lives of today. The storylines are timeless and very relatable.
Both families endure
There are currently hundreds of tales for young readers to choose from, and they’re still going strong. Jan and Stan’s younger son, Mike Berenstain, inherited the family legacy in 2012 following Jan’s passing and honors it by continuing to write and publish his parents’ iconic picture books (though with some changes). He, like his mother and father, was also born in Philadelphia. He even studied at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts), an education that apparently served him well for the monumental task of continuing the Berenstain Bears saga.
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