Stanley Melvin Berenstain and Janice Marian Grant were both born in 1923 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, growing up in families struggling through the Great Depression.
They met in 1941 while attending the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts. Stan was drafted into the Army during World War II and served from 1943 to 1946. Blind in one eye, he was given limited service and spent most of his army career as a medical illustrator at an army hospital in Indiana.
During the war, Jan worked as a draftsman for the Army Corps of Engineers and as an aircraft riveter building the US Navy’s PBY flying boat. During his service, Stan began drawing cartoons and publishing them in magazines.
Stan and Jan were married right after the war and began careers as a magazine cartoonist team. They published cartoons focusing on humor about children and families in The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers Magazine, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, and many more. Many of these cartoons were also published as book collections.
The start of their own family came with the birth of their son, Leo, in 1948, followed by Mike in 1951. Since both sons were big Dr. Seuss fans, Stan and Jan decided to try their hands at creating a children’s book themselves. Their efforts became The Big Honey Hunt, which featured Papa, Mama, and, at that time, Small Bear. It was released in 1962 with Dr. Seuss (aka Ted Seuss Geisel) himself as the editor and publisher.
More than two hundred Berenstain Bears books have followed in the fifty-three years since, and total sales of the series have topped 250 million copies. A few changes have come along the way: Small Bear became Brother Bear with the birth of Sister in 1974, and the littlest sister, Honey, arrived in 2000. The names, “Papa,” “Mama,” “Brother,” and “Sister,” were chosen for ease of reading and to emphasize their archetypical roles in the family.
Until the late ‘80s, Stan and Jan continued their work as magazine cartoonists along with their children’s book creation. Their son, Mike, had become a children’s book author-illustrator in the 1970s and, in the 1980s, joined his parents in their magazine work. By 1992, he had moved on to illustrating and co-writing Berenstain Bears books.
Soon the popularity of the Berenstain Bears spread beyond the world of children’s books. The first animated adaptation, an NBC Christmas special called The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree, was produced in 1979. Four other NBC seasonal specials followed in the early ‘80s. From 1985-1986, two seasons of a Saturday morning Berenstain Bears cartoon aired on CBS, and in 2002, PBS created a season of daily Berenstain Bears cartoons. The characters have also been featured as dolls, toys, games, puzzles, software, clothing and many other products.
Shortly after the publication of the series moved from Random House to HarperCollins in 2004, Mike suggested to Stan and Jan that they create a new sub-line of Berenstain Bears books that reflect spiritual themes while continuing to publish their traditional storybooks. They co-created the first four titles in the ongoing Living Lights series released by the HarperCollins publishing group, Zondervan, in 2008.
After a long illness, Stan passed away in November 2005, at the age of eighty-two. Jan died in February 2012, at the age of eighty-eight. Mike continues to write and illustrate Berenstain Bears books on all sorts of subjects–everything from going for a ride on the train to the golden rule. He lives and works in the rolling countryside of Eastern Pennsylvania–a place that looks very much like Berenstain Bear Country.
The following is the Introduction to Child’s Play, the Berenstain Baby Boom, 1946-1964, Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain, by Mike Berenstain, published by Abrams, Inc., 2008.
When asked “What is art?” in the 1970s, cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan replied, “Art is whatever you can get away with.” In Stan’s and my day, it wasn’t. Talented art students in the Philadelphia area schools in the 1930s were singled out by discerning art teachers, mentored, and sent on for advanced instruction by accomplished artists at the city’s distinguished art schools. Meeting for the first time at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts), we both were surprised and bemused that we would meet at all. We came from different high schools – city and suburban. Our backgrounds were different – Jewish and Protestant. But we thought of ourselves as, simply, American and, primarily, as artists.
Comparing notes further, there was something more significant we had in common – our American childhoods. Stan and his sister and I and my brothers had the same toys, played the same games and sports, had the same lessons in school, had similar hobbies, read many of the same books, knew a lot of the same music, listened to the same radio programs and often went to the same movies and museums.
Stan about 4 on his trike in front his father’s Army-Navy store about 1927
Stan about 4 on his trike in front his father’s Army-Navy store about 1927
Making model airplanes from strips of balsa wood and tissue paper was a hobby of Stan’s. He also recalled sending in box tops to get a Buck Rogers Rocket Gun, which, it turned out, was made of paper. Among his other childhood recollections were stamping tin cans onto his shoes to make a racket while walking down the sidewalk, making a rubber band gun out of strips of inner tube, and sneaking into the back of the horse-drawn ice truck to snitch strips of ice during the long, hot Philadelphia summers.
One of my chief hobbies was making clothes for my two dolls. One doll was an infant with a china head. If I dropped it while playing and it broke, being that it was during the Depression, it didn’t get a new one until Christmas. My other doll was a “Mama” doll with enameled arms, legs, face, and head with curled (horse) hair, and a stuffed cloth body with a voice box that said, “Mama!” when bent over. I had crayons and watercolors to draw and paint with, as did Stan, and colored modeling clay that after much modeling of various animals became blended into one color – a grayish brown.
Since my father was an expert carpenter, he was able to build elaborate playthings for us – things we wouldn’t otherwise have had in the hard times of the early 1930s. There was a hand-painted oversize Monopoly board (the reverse side was a checker board) and an elaborate pinball game made out of nothing more expensive than plywood and nails.
When, after World War II, Stan and I married and became a cartooning team, we drew on our childhood memories of these toys and games, and of Depression-era back-alley play to create our first cartoons about child’s play. When we became parents ourselves, we passed most of our childhood enthusiasms on to our two sons, augmented by many of the new books, toys, and games that appeared in the 1950s. Renditions of these all found their way into our early art and cartoon work for books and magazines, renditions of toddlers Leo and Mike along with them.
This was long before we began to think about creating a family of bears as the subject of a series of children’s books. Back then, our people characters were mainstays of the thriving family magazines that, along with movies and radio, were the principal promulgations of popular culture. Magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s had a combined weekly circulation of more than ten million and a readership of perhaps fifty million. Along with such monthly magazines as Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Home Companion, Good Housekeeping, and McCall’s, family magazine readership was huge.
At the time, the Berenstain contribution to this pre-television world of mass communications was viewed as a contemporary chronicle of the universal experience of American childhood. Today, it can perhaps be best viewed as an opportunity for a nostalgic journey back to the post-war world of Leo and Mike and their fellow Baby Boomers.
Here at Berenstain Studios we get a lot of questions from readers through fan mail, our social media pages, and in person. Check them out to learn more about Stan & Jan, the making of the Bear Books, and where we’re going in the future!
There are several reasons the Berenstain Bear books have remained successful.
The books use humor targeted specifically to the psychological needs of young children. Sometimes, this humor is completely misunderstood by adults. For instance, the character of Papa Bear–accident-prone, over-confident etc.–is a simple role-reversal, or Topsey-turvey form of humor. Fathers are authority figures, often dominating, overbearing and downright frightening ones to young children. Showing a father as error-prone and fallible is hilarious to young children due to its incongruity–its turning-reality-on-its-head quality. Adults often interpret this feature as simply disrespectful of fatherhood and undermining parental authority. but this shows a complete misunderstanding of and, frankly, callous, insensitivity to the real power structure of adult/child relations.
The stories, also, are targeted to the narrative forms and subject matter appealing to young children.
Most of the books offer helpful advice about and explorations of family and social life.
The art combines a cartoon style with naturalistic representation–for instance in the use of shadows and perspective to show dimensional and spacial effects. This is derived from standard early 20th Century techniques of illustration and, while no longer common in contemporary children’s books, is particularly appealing to the visual sensibilities of young children.
If this were rephrased as, “Was there a point that Stan & Jan ignored new trends in children’s books?”, the answer would be, “Yes.” Stan, Jan and Mike Berenstain had absolutely no interest in “new trends” in children’s books. they did, and do, create the kind of children’s books they like and which they think children will identify with and enjoy.
The most popular books in each line are as follows:
Harper (main line) – The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Chores
Random House (classics) – The Berenstain Bears and the New Baby
Zondervan (Living Lights) – The Berenstain Bears and the Easter Story
harper KidsRandom housezondervan
We are working on creating new animated Bears content, but have nothing concrete to report yet on that front. However, we have archived all of our 1980’s TV show and specials and uploaded them to our YouTube Channel. All of the PBS series is also available to view on the Treehouse Direct YouTube Channel.
First, the characters were introduced as part of the Random House Beginner Book series. These books were designed for children just learning to read and so featured very simple language emphasizing words that were phonetically easy to sound-out and which could be visually matched with and un-confusingly associated with the elements of the illustration. So the initial three family characters were, “Papa,” “Mama,” and “Small Bear.” More complex words like, “Mother,” “Father,” or a specific name would not have have fit this function. Later, when the characters appeared in storybooks with more complex language, this naming model was continued for consistency. When Sister Bear was introduced, it would have been incongruous for Small Bear to suddenly have a specific name so he became “Brother” and the new baby, “Sister.”
Second, the Bear family was introduced in 1962. This was the tail-end of a social and cultural period where it was quite common for family members to refer to each other by their family positions rather than their names. People really did refer to each other as “Brother,” “Bro,” “Sister” or “Sis.” So the Berenstain Bears books reflected this origin. But this naming convention of the early 20th Century nuclear family was not applicable to new characters as they were introduced over the years.
We have published over 350 Berenstain Bear Books since The Big Honey Hunt in 1962. For a comprehensive list of all out books check out The Berenstain Bears Bibliography and Blog maintained by Berenstain Bear Book collector, Brad Mariska
Stan and Jan’s favorite book was probably The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree. Because of the content of the story, the book was fun to illustrate; with creepy stairways, alligators, suits of armor, and deep shadowy passages.
In 2005, we moved the publishing of new Berenstain Bears titles from Random House to HarperCollins. Zondervan, a major religious publisher, was part of HarperCollins. Because of his own faith, Mike Berenstain was interested in creating children’s books on spiritual themes. Stan, Jan & Mike were aware that the Berenstain Bears had always been popular in the religious marketplace due to their positive treatment of ethics and family life. So, they approached HarperCollins with the idea of creating a separate line of Berenstain Bears books on spiritual themes. HarperCollins agreed to this and Zondervan began publishing the Living Lights series in 2008.