Excerpts from an interview with Stan and Jan Berenstain by Scholastic students – Part 2

Over the years, a number of questions have been asked many times about the Berenstain Bears. The following answers from Stan, excerpted from an interview with Stan and Jan a number of years ago, might answer some you have had …

New Baby1) Have you had an adventure like those of the bears in your books?
Yes, I can think of a number of books. The Bike Lesson is based on my attempt to teach our first son, when he was about five or six, to ride a bike. There are many others. The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor is based on our experience taking our two sons to the doctor. Many of our books are based on real experiences. One of our books is called The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby. That was based on our experience becoming new parents. We already had one son and the other one was on the way. Our son noticed that Jan’s lap had gotten a lot smaller. After the baby was born, he sat on his mother’s lap again and said, “Momma, you’ve got your lap back,” and that’s in that book. So the answer is that most of our books are based on experience – some more than others.

2) Are the little bear characters anything like you were when you were a kid?
I think so. Sister Bear likes to jump rope and is a lively little girl, just like Jan. I was an avid model airplane builder when I was young, and that’s one of Brother Bear’s hobbies. I think Brother Bear is a better athlete than I was as a child, although I was very enthusiastic. So yes, I think they are like us. I don’t think it was any grand plan, but it’s just worked out that way.

Mama's New Job Cover3) Where did the idea come from for Mama’s New Job?
That book is about ten years old. Many of the people we work with, editors and so on, are working mothers, so we’re very aware of that. About that time, feminism was very much in the public eye, and we read a statistic that about half of all the mothers in the United States had jobs as well as being wives and mothers. We thought it was an important subject, and we gave it a shot.

No Girls Allowed4) What gave you the idea to write the book No Girls Allowed?
That’s a good question. Jan, when she was a little girl, was about the only girl who lived on that street. She had two brothers and they did their best to shut her out. But Jan, being a very spirited girl, didn’t let them. So that’s where that came from.

5) How long have you been writing?
We’ve been writing pretty much since we were married about 54 years ago, but we weren’t writing for children. We were writing for adults. We’ve both been drawing since we were about 3 or 4 years old.

6) Do you both write and illustrate?
We both do both. That’s always been the case. We drew before we wrote. We met in art school. The writing followed the drawing, and we continue to do both. We think up an idea for a story first, then think up a cover and draw that first. Beyond the covers and titles, we write the story together, then rough out the pictures in a general way. I generally do the rough sketch, and then Jan does the beautiful drawing on art paper, then we share the job of coloring it.

7) What kind of tools do you use to illustrate your books?
We use pencils to begin with. We also use Flair pens, often different colors to color-code the layouts. Once we get past the layout stage, we use India inks and old-fashioned pens where you put the nib in the holder. We don’t like some of the new kinds of pens – partly because we’re old-fashioned and stuck in our ways, but partly because we think it’s important to be able to vary the weight of the lines and you can’t do that with the mechanical pens. For coloring, we use a liquid watercolor that comes in bottles, called Dr. Martin’s Dyes. They’re very clear, very transparent, very bright, and we love them dearly.

8) How long do you plan to continue writing Berenstain Bears books?
We’re going to keep on doing it until we get it wrong. That’s my standard answer.

Note:  Though Stan died in 2005 and Jan in 2012, their son Mike continues to create the delightful Bear adventures from his studio in Pennsylvania.

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Back Then … by Jan Berenstain

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.

Jan at about age 8

Jan at about age 8

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.

Child's_Play 2

Child’s Play, the Berenstain Baby Boom, 1946-1964, Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain, by Mike Berenstain, published by Abrams, Inc., 2008

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Who is Bigpaw?

Great Bear1A reader recently asked if Great Natural Bear and Bigpaw were one and the same.  Mike Berenstain provided the following answer:

They didn’t start off being the same, but they became the same.

Great Natural Bear was introduced as a minor character in the Bears’ Almanac in 1973 to show a bear hibernating and doing other “natural” bear behaviors.

Big PawBigpaw was introduced later as the main character in the Thanksgiving TV special, The Berenstain Bears Meet Bigpaw, and he began to appear in other books, especially the chapter books, as an ongoing character. Bigpaw looked and acted just like Great Natural Bear. Though it was never actually stated, it was assumed that Great Natural Bear was the same character as Bigpaw but with a different name. Great Natural Bear can be viewed as a “precursor” to Bigpaw.

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Excerpts from an interview with Stan and Jan Berenstain by Scholastic students

Professor_Actual_FactualOver the years, a number of questions have been asked many times about the Berenstain Bears.  The following answers, excerpted from an interview with Stan and Jan a number of years ago, might answer some you have had …

1)  Why did you decide to give the Bears your name?
That wasn’t our decision. The first book we did was called The Big Honey Hunt. We didn’t call them the Berenstain Bears. Our editor was Dr. Seuss. When we did the second book, it was called The Bike Lesson, and Dr. Seuss put on the cover The Second Adventure of the Berenstain Bears. So it was Dr. Seuss who named them, not us.

2)  Is Bear Country based on a real town?
Well, in a funny way it is and it isn’t. We started doing the Bear books and created the look of Bear Country before we moved to our present home.  The funny thing is where we live now looks exactly like Bear Country.

3)  What made you decide to use a tree house for the Bear’s home?
I wish I had an answer for that! It just seemed as inevitable as the sun coming up in the morning. When we decided to do a children’s book, it never occurred to us to have them live anywhere except a tree house. We get a lot of mail that says something like “I wish I could go to Bear Country and live in a tree house with the bears.”  I guess it’s every child’s fantasy.

4)  How old are the Berenstain Bears?
Mama is 27 and Papa is 29. Sister Bear is in first grade, Brother Bear is in third, and our new little Honey is about 18 months old. They won’t ever get older!

5)  Why won’t the Bears grow older?
Stan: Because the books are written for children who are about the same age as Sister and Brother Bear. And we think they’ll be more interesting and more fun for our audience. We also do Berenstain Bears Chapter Books, and there are older cubs in those books.

6)  Why are the pictures in The Big Honey Hunt different from the other books?
Stan: That is a very good question. The answer is that we really didn’t know how to draw the Bears in the beginning. In addition to that, our editor was Dr. Seuss, and he wanted the Bears to be as funny and comical-looking as possible.

7)  Why do you start all of your books with a rhyme on the first page?
Jan: Well, the first book we did with a rhyme in it was The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby, and I thought it would introduce the story nicely and set the scene.  Stan: It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it still does.

8) Out of all the characters in all your books, is there one who has become your favorite?
I guess my favorite is Papa Bear because to a great extent he’s based on me. He tends to get carried away, as I do. He tends to be a little bit clumsy, as I am. And he has very good intentions, as I do. Now I’m only occasionally as foolish and accident prone as Papa Bear is capable of being, but I do have my moments. I bet you Jan would say Mama Bear, because Mama Bear is based on Jan. Mama Bear is warm and wise and almost perfect, like Jan. I think they are like terrible exaggerations of the two of us.

Note:  Though Stan died in 2005 and Jan in 2012, their son Mike continues to create the delightful Bear adventures from his studio in Pennsylvania.

www.berenstainbears.com

Original article

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The Diary of a Christmas Special … How the Berenstain Bears Got on TV

Christmas Tree TV ShowNovember 13, 1978We fly from Charlotte, N.C., the last stop on a Fall promotion tour on behalf of our Berenstain Bears books to meet with a leading animation producer / director.  Object: to try to persuade him to produce a Christmas special about our eponymous bears.

He is tanned, gracious and charming, and assures us that Christmas is a waste of time. The networks have so much Christmas stuff that it’s almost impossible to get a Christmas special on. He suggests that a less competitive holiday would be more appropriate for our bears – Father’s Day, for instance.

He shows us some character sheets for animated specials he has on this Christmas.

November 14 – We ponder less competitive holidays – Father’s Day, Columbus Day, Arbor Day (the bears live in a tree), but visions of sugar plums persist on dancing in our heads.

This isn’t the first time we’ve been stymied or side-tracked in our attempt to get our bears on TV. At various times various networks and producers have variously said, “Animation’s too expensive,” “We’re overstocked right now,” “Who needs more bears on television? We’ve got Yogi, Pooh, Gentle Ben, Grizzly Adams, The Chicago Bears, The Bad News Bears …”

November 15 – We get back to the real world of writing and drawing Bear books and contributing our long-running “It’s All in the Family” (people) feature to Good Housekeeping.

November 19 – As we work on The Berenstain Bears’ Activity Book, the twenty-fourth Bear book in our series, we continue to hear strains of Jingle Bells and Deck-the-Halls in our collective heads.

A Christmas story line begins to generate. We see funny overconfident Papa and his bright helpful little cubs off in the woods. Papa’s carrying his trusty ax. Where’s Mama?

December 5 – The Christmas specials season kicks off. The tanned Hollywood producer is right. The networks have animated specials coming out of their ears – there’s Snoopy, The Grinch, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman – Christmas specials as far as the eye can see. There is no room on the networks for our bears.

December 8 – Our Christmas story continues to percolate.  Of course, Mama is back in the tree house. Papa and the cubs are out searching for a Christmas tree. Not just any tree, but a really special tree – “Why, bears will come from near and far,” brags Papa, “to see how Christmasy we are!”

December 14 – Since Christmas specials tend to come in bunches we catch some non-animated Christmas shows — a beautiful musical presentation from the First Baptist Church of Dallas starring Tennessee Ernie Ford, a wonderful Gift of the Magi.  The credits indicate they are produced by The Cates Brothers. We had some dealings with Joe Cates some years ago on a non-bear project that never got out of the woods.  Well, somebody’s getting Christmas shows on the air.

December 20 – More story elements materialize. We hear bits of dialogue – Mama Bear saying, “Buy our tree down the road from Grizzly Gus. He is sure to have the right tree for us!”

December 22 – We are in New York seeing our publisher. On the way home we stop at a newsstand, but instead of picking up our usual couple of magazines, something impels us to buy Variety, the show biz weekly. We are startled to find among the arcane headlines about “Boff Grosses” a large Cates Brothers ad announcing their five new Christmas specials.

December 27 – We write Joe Cates seeking his advice. He may not do animation, but he sure does Christmas specials. Perhaps he could advise us. A short meeting. A few minutes of his time. Wouldn’t even have to be in his office. Could be in an anteroom, a hallway.

January 15, 1979 – We don’t hear from Cates.

January 30 – We still don’t hear.

February 7 – We still don’t hear. We forget about television.

February 8 – Letter arrives from Joe Cates (delayed because of being missent to our old address). The letter is brief and cordial. It says: “Notwithstanding the fact that my kids have about fifteen of your books and I have gone nuts reading them over and over, why not an animated Cates Brothers/Berenstain Bears Christmas special? Stop by and we’ll talk about it.”

February 12 – We arrive at Cates’ office. Mr. Cates is out of the office and will be a little late. We are conducted into Cates’ inner sanctum and asked to wait. Awards and testimonials stud the walls — Emmies, Peabodies, signed pictures of half the stars of the TV firmament smile down at us. We feel like a couple of kids on the White House tour. Cates arrives, greets us and says, “Well, this is going to be a very relaxed meeting.” We look quizzical.  “Because,” he continues, “I just sold a Berenstain Bears Christmas special to the network.”

February 20 – April 8 – A great deal happens over the next few months. We write the script and song lyrics for The Berenstain Bears Christmas Tree. Arrangements are made with Perpetual Motion Pictures, a leading producer of animated commercials, to create the film. Perpetual’s prexy, Buzz Potamkin tells us how many individual animation drawings it will take to produce the film. We faint. (20,000 drawings!).  Director Mordi Gerstein tells us he will need model drawings of the bears — front, side and back views — and of the other characters as well. We draw perpetually for three weeks. Back views of the bears are especially challenging (we’ve never seen them from the back before). Emmy award-winning conductor/composer Elliot Lawrence performs the music he has composed on a tinny piano in a raspy voice. It’s beautiful.

We worry about how Mordi and his animation group will draw our bears. Will they come out looking like the Michelin Man or the Hawaiian Punch person? Associate producer Jere Jacob reassures us on this and many other scores. “Not to worry. They are great bear drawers.” She’s right, on this and many other scores. Auditioning voices: we listen to eight Papas, six Mamas and four-and-twenty Sister and Brother Bears in six hours. Actors are selected. Two days in the space station atmosphere of a high-powered sound recording studio: sound engineer Bob Lifton laughs at two of the show’s ninety-seven jokes. Since he does sound for Saturday Night Live this is considered a good omen.

June 15 – The first seven-second bit of animation is ready. It’s our bears! They walk! They talk! They move! We play it over twenty-seven times …

November 10 – Somehow the thousands of drawings, the myriad vocal and musical effects it takes to make one twenty-six-and-a-half minute animated special have come together — and The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree is done … If you want to find out how the bears discover the true spirit of Christmas (after running afoul of an angry skunk, a roaring blizzard and an ax-wielding eagle), just tune in and see “’how Christmasy” it all turned out.

By Stan and Jan Berenstain

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Remembering my father … Stan Berenstain

Stan Berenstain 2My father was, above all, a person who made things. He was a full-time creator with a capital AC.@  Most people are familiar with the public face of his creativity, the books that he and my mother made over their sixty year collaboration.  But there was another side to Stan=s creative impulse, a private side directed toward his children B toward me and my older brother, Leo.  It was one which had a great effect on us.

A good example was the time when, at about age six, I became interested in knights in armor.  I had a book with illustrations of medieval weapons and equipment, including catapults.  I fell in love with those catapults.  I showed them to my Dad.  He, I think sensibly, refrained from building me a real working catapult.  But he did offer to make scale models of the ones that were in my book.  He took me to the local hobby shop where we bought a supply of balsa wood, the kind you use for making model airplanes.

Back home, Dad drew up some plans, got out his x-acto knife and Duco cement and set to work.  As I watched, he created perfectly scaled models of the warlike creations of a thousand years ago.  Not only did they look perfect, but they worked, too.  The wheels on the siege tower turned. The arms of the catapults pivoted.  He created illusory details out of simple materials.  He made ropes out of twisted thread.  He made leather thongs out of sliced masking tape.  But what I remember most vividly was when he took a sharpened lead pencil and used it to make lines in sheets of balsa wood so that it looked like they were put together out of tiny planks.  Then, he took the point of the pencil and poked little holes at the end of each plank so that they looked just like the heads of nails holding the planks in place.  For me, it was magic.  Unfortunately, I then took the models and played war games with them, and they did not fare well. 

But my father didn’t mind.  By then, he had gone on to other acts of creation.  He was drawing cartoons for magazines, or painting a picture, or writing a book or inventing a new TV show, or a hundred other things.

Of course, my father had a partner in all this creativity, my mother, Jan. During their long career together, they were sometimes asked whether they ever disagreed about their work. They always replied that, no, they didn’t disagree, but that they sometimes Aagreed, vigorously.@  Their marriage had to be unusually strong and close to survive the stresses of both a professional and personal relationship, especially when you consider that they spent about 99.9% of their married life literally in the same room together.

I don=t think it was any accident that my father was able to communicate the wonder and enthusiasm of his creativity so directly to me and to my brother when we were children.  I think that the impulse of his creativity was, at heart, child-like B the same impulse that compels a child to make mud pies, or dress up in a costume, or invent an imaginary companion to play with.  And I think it was no accident that he communicated so effectively and powerfully with children through his books.  He retained his own child-like delight in creation throughout his long life and I think the world is a better place for it.

by Mike Berenstain

www.berenstainbears.com


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We Get Questions …

QuestionsOver the years, a number of the same questions have been asked many times.  The following answers from Mike Berenstain might help address some you have had …

         1) Why don’t the Bears have regular names like Bob or Betty or Sally – why just Mama, Papa, and so on?

      I could answer that the bear family is a family of symbolic Everybears – ursine stand-ins for the typical American family.  But the real reason is that when the characters were created in 1962, it was for the limited vocabulary Beginner Book line and it was felt that Mama and Papa would be easy to read.

       2) Why do the Berenstain Bears always wear the same clothes?

They are bears, not people, and bears always wear the same clothes.  Just go to the zoo sometime to check this out.

         3) How long does it take you to do a book?

This question tends to come from kids who are considering creating children’s books as a career and are concerned that it may take up too much of their spare time.  The answer is … as long as it takes.

          4) How do you draw the same picture over and over again in all those books so many times?

This comes from children who are under the impression that we draw all the printed copies of our books by hand.  They have never seen the huge commercial printing presses on which children’s books are printed.  I usually tell the children who ask this that we just Xerox them.

          5) Why did you decide on using a bear family as the central characters in your books?

There is a tradition of bears in children’s books and, also, they are animals that naturally stand up.  They look good in clothes and seem almost human when the humorous illustrator works with their facial expressions.

       6) Why don’t you do some books about some characters besides the Bears?

It’s a good question.  We certainly do seem to have gotten stuck in a rut!

          7) One question came from a particularly observant youth who pointed out that in The Berenstain Bears and the New Baby, it says Papa Bear hollowed out the family’s tree house from an oak tree.  But in The Berenstain Bears’ Moving Day, the family purchases and moves into an already existent tree house.

We gave this one to my mother, Jan.  Her answer was, I thought, resourceful.  She explained that the Bears did, indeed, move into the tree house as shown in Moving Day, but Papa then expanded it by carving out sections of the trunk previously unoccupied.  You can see why my mother was the brains of the operation.

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