Children’s book bears have ranged from the large and lumbering to the cute and cuddly.
The Berenstain Bears fall somewhere in-between. They are big – at least as big as people – and burly – they definitely weigh in on the “fully-packed” side. But they are friendly and funny. They have no fangs (just ask their dentist) and their claws have dwindled a little more than toenails. They walk on their hind legs, wear clothes, live in houses – albeit tree houses – and engage in wide range of human activities. They drive cars, play soccer, eat pizza, go to school and watch too much TV.
But, still, why bears?
The fact is that bears are a natural stand-in for people. They are something like people but not too much like them. They have rounded heads with eyes in front, they sometimes stand on their hind legs and they manipulate things with hand-like paws. We often say of large burly people that they are “bear-like.”
But bears are definitely animals. They have none of that unsettling mixed identity of monkeys or apes. Bears have their own distinct lineage. They are analogous to human beings without being like them.
Children are fascinated by large, powerful animals like bears. But they are threatened by them, as well. The role of bears as semi-human children’s book characters may help reassure children about their own position in the food chain.
Our contribution to the literary bear clan first appeared in the 1962 book, The Big Honey Hunt. This was an easy-to-read book devoted to slapstick comedy and rollicking adventure. The only thing on our bears’ minds, back then, was honey and their principal message was “watch out for angry bees!”
At first, they were a threesome – Mama Bear, Papa Bear and Small Bear. They received their official name, the Berenstain Bears, from editor, Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss).
“It’s a vaudeville act,” he explained. “Like Murgatroyd’s Mules or Dugan’s Dogs.”
The Bears continued in this happy-go-lucky existence until 1974 when The Berenstain Bears and the New Baby appeared. The baby was Sister Bear. Small Bear graduated to Brother Bear.
In year 2000, with the birth of third cub, Honey Bear, the family group was complete. By the way, some folks assume that our bears’ last name is “Berenstain” as in “Papa Berenstain,” “Mama Berenstain,” etc. But “Berenstain” is actually our family’s last name. We always try to make it clear that they are the bears and we are the people!