This year the Berenstain Bears celebrate 50 years in their country tree house home, and Mike Berenstain, writer and illustrator of the series, shares its beginnings and tells TheCelebrityCafe.com what the future holds.
Mike recalled that his parents, Stan and Jan Berenstain, were successful magazine cartoonists in the 1940s and 1950s, and their work, featuring children, appeared in publications like Saturday Evening Post and Good Housekeeping. The Berenstains were influenced by Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, an editor at Random House Publishers. “My brother, Leo, and I were reading Dr. Seuss in the late 1950s and when he started a new brand with famous cartoonists like Phil Eastman (author of Sam and the Firefly), my parents said, ‘That’s a fine idea. Why don’t we do it?’”
Mike credits Geisel with helping his parents develop the style of their books which became popular reading primers. Their first effort, The Big Honey Hunt, featuring Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Small Bear, was published in 1962.
Mike said that Papa and Mama Bear are exaggerations of his parents. “Yes, my father was very outgoing and a little clumsy, and Mom really was the stabilizing force,” he said. Stan died in 2005 and Jan died in February of this year.
The Bear children were modeled after Mike and his brother. He added that both boys enjoyed watching the progress of each story. “We read them as they were working on them. At different stages they’d put them on a story board and we would watch as they developed,” he recalled.
Small Bear became Brother Bear when Sister arrived in 1974. A second sister, Honey, debuted in 2000.
Mike joined his parents as a writer and illustrator in the 1980s and his own children provided inspiration for the stories.
The Berenstain Bears moved from Random House to HarperCollins in 2004.
To date, the Berenstain Bears have been featured in 300 books, had their own television series, appeared in feature films, stage shows, and have their likenesses on toys and games. Last year a helium balloon of Brother with a soccer ball was featured in holiday parades in Dallas and Houston.
So, what’s new? Mike said that besides the 80 storybooks currently in publication, a dozen new books will appear this year. Some out of print books are scheduled to be re-issued, some in e-book format. The 50th edition of The Big Honey Hunt is now available
Also, a previously unpublished book from the 1960s, Nothing Ever Happens at the South Pole, a story about a little penguin that misses the adventures around him because he is always looking for something bigger, will be available in August.
When asked how writing for children has changed in 50 years, Mike replied, “Wow. It’s changed a lot. I haven’t changed much because I do them the way my parents did. But, there is a lot of dystopian publishing now, with darker story lines. It’s a different world, but fortunately there are still people who like what we do. The characters continue to be popular. People read them as children and read them to their children,” Mike said. “There is a continuing interest.”
Older fans of the series say that the newer stories present the same family values and gentle humor they grew up with, whether warning children not to talk to strangers, or explaining the necessity of washing their hands. The Bears’ world is still populated with a variety of critters that resemble humans, and they have the same needs and interests, so preschool-aged children can learn simple lessons about life from their animal counterparts. Besides the Bear family, you may see a mole in his burrow watching television beneath the Bears’ tree house, or a family of chipmunks grilling dinner outside their woodpile home. These details help readers identify with the characters and produce smiles. “I’ve spent my whole life looking at cartoons and that’s just what we do,” Mike said. “We see a lot of visual humor.”
The most recent book to be published, God Bless Our Home, shows how the Bear family works together to create more space for each member of the family in their tree house. “I really enjoyed doing this story,” Mike said. “It allowed me to do a little history on the Bear house. It started with two bedrooms and expanded when Sister came along. It was fun to figure out the logistics of the history of the Bear tree house.”
It’s not just American readers that appreciate the Berenstain Bears. Mike said the books are published in many different languages with the most recent fans living in Bulgaria and Iceland. “It never occurred to me that anyone would publish our books in Icelandic,” he said.
He is currently working on a Berenstain Bears Storybook Bible at the publisher’s suggestion. In this offering, Papa Bear reads Bible stories to his children and they imagine all the characters as bears. With more than 300 illustrations, Mike has had help working on the project for the past five years.
And, a theatrical movie is still in the script stage.
TCC mentioned that the Berenstain Bears’ popularity will likely keep him busy promoting family values and helping children with issues for generations to come.
“The public has embraced them and they continue on,” he said. “It’s nice to have that continuity.”