Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002 and from Mike Berenstain’s Child’s Play: Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain, published by Abrams in 2008.
Long before Stan and Jan Berenstain began to think about creating a family of bears as the subject of a series of children’s books, they were artists. Jan wrote, “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.”
Soon after Stan and Jan were married on April 13, 1946, they set up housekeeping in a run-down, ramshackle, hot-in-the-summer, cold-in-the-winter, crooked apartment over the Woodland Army and Navy Store on Woodland Avenue in extreme south-western Philadelphia.
Stan’s early notion that doing cartoons for magazines would be a great way of making a living turned out to be a snare and a delusion. “We continued to sell occasional cartoons to The Saturday Review of Literature, but we had no success in selling to ‘the majors.’ The major magazines that used cartoons were The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, This Week (a Sunday supplement), Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Home Companion, and others.”
“But try as we would, we couldn’t break into the majors. Working together, one of us on one side of the drawing table and one on the other, we cranked out twelve to fifteen cartoons a week and sent them to a succession of magazines. We had as many as nine batches of cartoons in the mail at any given time. Week after week after week, we’d send them out, and week after week after week, they’d come back rejected. And every week we studied the cartoons in The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s and tried to figure out what we were doing wrong.”
“We had been submitting batches of cartoons every week for a year to about a dozen magazines without a single sale. We decided (at least Stan did) to break through the anonymity of the U.S. Postal Service and seek a face-to-face meeting with John Bailey, the cartoon editor of The Saturday Evening Post.”
“’Berenstain, let me ask you a question,’ Bailey said after listening to our sad story. ‘Do you ever look at our magazine?’”
“’Of course. Every cartoon, every week.’”
“’That’s surprising. Because every week I get a batch of cartoons from you – and I like your stuff, it’s pretty good – and every week your cartoons are about cultural stuff like art, music, history, science. But The Saturday Evening Post isn’t about such things. It’s a family magazine about ladies’ stockings hanging on the shower rail, kids stealing cookies out of the cookie jar, taking the dog to the vet. Sure, our readers have heard of Picasso and Freud, but they’re not interested in jokes about them. What they’re interested in is jokes about themselves … Well, does that make any sense to you?’”
“’Yes, it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for letting me come down to see you.’”
“So we set to work doing cartoons about getting the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube, ladies’ stockings hanging on the shower rail, kids stealing cookies out of the cookie jar, taking the dog to the vet – and we began to sell to the majors!”
“After failing to sell a single cartoon in our first year of weekly submissions, we proceeded to sell a total of 154 cartoons in our second year. We had six cartoons in one issue of The Saturday Evening Post – a record.”
These cartoons struck some kind of a nerve. First the Post, then Collier’s, and then a host of other magazines began snapping them up. Everyone from The New York Times to Successful Farming were suddenly featuring Stan and Jan’s work.