55 Years of the Berenstain Bears and the making of “The Big Honey Hunt”

September 28 Marks the 55th anniversary of the first Berenstain Bears book, The Big Honey Hunt published in 1962. Below is one of the first sketches of the Bears, found in the archives 5 years ago while getting ready for our 50th Anniversary.  First bear

The Bear family has gone through lots of changes since 1962, but the Berenstain Bears have remained a well-known and treasured staple of children’s literature for over half a century!

Stan & Jan Berenstain were published comics well before they entertained the concept of creating children’s books. The idea evolved gradually, but their first thoughts are explained by Stan & Jan in their autobiography Down a Sunny Dirt Road published in 2002. (all additional quotes are also pulled from this text)

Down a Sunny Dirt Rd“We knew from our first noodlings that our book would be about bears – a family of bears. We knew that they would live in a tree. We don’t know how we knew, but we knew. We knew we’d have three characters: a bluff, overenthusiastic Papa Bear who wore bib overalls and a plaid shirt and was a little like Stan, a wise Mama Bear who wore a blue dress with white polka dots and a similar polka-dotted dust-cap who was very like Jan, and a bright, lively little cub who was a lot like Leo. Michael, not yet one, didn’t make the cut.”

 

Jan, Mike, Leo, and Stan in studio 1952

Jan, Mike, Leo, and Stan in their studio (1952)

 

After an awkward meeting with publishers, financial, and contractual worries, Stan & Jan eventually ended up at Random House. It was there that Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was running a new division for the publisher, “Beginner Books”, modeled after his own easy-to-read children’s books. Ted became Stan & Jan’s editor and with his help they started the tumultuous journey of crafting the first Bears book.

“It also became clear as we worked with Ted (we eventually did 17 books with him) that although he accepted certain broad, general ideas about story construction – that a story needed a beginning, a middle, and an end, for example – he wasn’t an editor in any conventional sense of the term.”

After multiple re-writes, story boarding, meetings, and notes, Stan & Jan refined their concept and came up with The Big Honey Hunt.

big-honey-hunt-1st-edition

“We went home and started from scratch. Our new story told about the Bear family’s waking up to an empty honey pot one morning. Papa and Small Bear take the empty pot and set out in search of honey. A bee flies by. Papa and Small Bear ‘follow that bee to its honey tree.’ But when they get there, the bees rise up and chase Papa into a pond. On their way home Papa and Small Bear buy some honey at the honey store, which was what Mama wanted them to do in the first place.”

 

After the success of the Big Honey Hunt, the Berenstains went on to publish 17 more books with Dr. Seuss as their editor, and the series about the Bear Family became known as the “Berenstain Bears”. Stan & Jan later moved on from the “Beginner Book” format of rhyming couplets and one syllable words to the 8″x8″ format which allowed longer stories with more complicated plots. From there the Success of the series boomed and there have been over 350 Berenstain Bears stories published since, not including TV Specials, TV series, games, toys, and more! Following the death of Stan Berenstain in 2005, their younger son, Mike took a more active role from illustrating to writing the  Bear books along with his mother, Jan. After Jan’s death in 2012 Mike has continued to write and illustrate the Bear books, now published through Harper Collins and Zondervan.

On our social media sites we have been going through the archives for our “Berenstain Bears 55 Countdown” , posting images from Berenstain books and sketches from each year starting at 1962 and ending at present day. Scroll through below to see selections and notice how the Bears gradually changed in appearance, as they grew from a family of three to five.

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We thank you so much for your support and appreciation of the Berenstain Bears. We especially love hearing stories of parents passing down their favorite books to their kids, and even grand-kids! There would be no anniversary to celebrate without readers like you, so… Happy Reading!

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15 Things to Celebrate This December!

In Bear Country, winter is one of our favorite times of year, and each December we get excited for all the season has to offer: evenings snuggled around the fire, steaming mugs of hot cocoa, fun outdoor activities and, of course, Christmas! Here are some of the things we’ll be celebrating this month:

  1. Snow!

    Snow

  2. Choosing the perfect Christmas tree

    Tree

  3. An excuse for silly hats

    hats

  4. Sleigh rides through the countryside

    Sleigh Ride

  5. The annual Bear Country ice sculpture contest

    output_SnoqML

  6. Gingerbread Bears
    Gingerbread

  7. Hanging festive decorations
    Decorating

  8. Sledding!
    Sledding 1Though hopefully with better luck than Papa Bear…Sledding 2-3

  9. Setting up the Nativity scene
    Nativity Scene

  10. Delicious home-cooked meals
    Food

  11. The story of The Nutcracker
    Nutcracker

  12. Listening to carolers
    Carolers

  13. Baking cookies for Santa Bear
    Cookies…if Honey doesn’t polish them off first!

  14. Ice skating on frozen ponds
    Skating

  15. And spending quality time with the whole family!
    Family

What are you most looking forward to this December? Let us know in the comments!

 

Behind the Scenes: Making Thanksgiving All Around

The Bear Family has a new Thanksgiving adventure this year in Thanksgiving’s All Around, a Lift-the-Flap book recommend for children ages 4-8. In it, Mama, Papa, Brother, Sister, and Honey stroll through lush autumn landscapes. In search of a wild turkey after stumbling upon his tracks, the Bears find many surprises along the way.

To get an insider’s look at how this book came together, check out our Q&A with author and illustrator Mike Berenstain below.

Thanksgiving All Around is a Lift-the-Flap book. Could you talk a little about the mechanics of illustrating a book in this format?

Lift-the-Flap books are very difficult to design—they’re like putting together an elaborate puzzle. The story has to be planned around a series of hidden surprises, these hidden elements must be logically worked into each illustration and each flap that covers the surprise must be created as a separate illustration which much line up precisely with the illustration underneath.

TGiving

The book takes place, of course, in November. What sort of adjustments do you make when illustrating the Bear Country landscape in autumn?

Everything needs to take on a mellow autumn tonality—the greens are a warmer, yellower hue, autumn leaves must be a variety of yellows, oranges and reds.

Turkeys

Do you make any changes to the characters to reflect the season?

The Berenstain Bears are quite cold-tolerant—after all, they have thick fur. So, they only wear jackets and scarves when things get very chilly.

In addition to Bears, Thanksgiving All Around features all sorts of animals, like a woodchuck, kittens, turkeys, and more. How did you decide which animals to include?

The decisions about which ones to include was based on what would work with the flap book format. For instance, the idea of making a cloud in the sky into a flap suggested having a flock of geese flying by underneath.

Clouds and Geese

What is your favorite thing about Thanksgiving?

Pumpkin pie, without a doubt!

Pie

Thanksgiving All Around was published by HarperCollins on August 26th.
You can purchase it online here.

What’s It Like to Play a Berenstain Bear?

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Maura McColgan (pictured left with fellow castmate Joey Anchondo), an actress and rising senior at West Chester University, is a member of the Greater Ocean City Theatre Company for the 2014 Season. She recently played Sister Bear in the OCTC production of The Berenstain Bears on Stage.

 

What was your immediate thought upon finding that out you had been cast as Sister Bear?

I was so excited. I thought that Sister Bear would be a perfect role for me to play! She’s sassy, smart, and a very developed character. I had no problem getting myself into character because I was a lot like Sister Bear when I was a child.

 

How is playing an animal on stage—even a singing and dancing one—different than playing a human?

Playing an animal was probably the biggest struggle of the whole experience. To be honest, I kind of forgot that she wasn’t human because she is so personified! I did however try to add animalistic qualities to Sister Bear, like having her sniff the toy box that Papa Bear makes for her and Brother Bear in The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room [laughs].  I also growled when she was angry. Yes, playing a bear who is so much human was a little bit of a challenge! [Ed. Note: “They’re kind of furry around the torso / They’re a lot like people, only more so”]

 

How did acting in The Berenstain Bears on Stage compare to some of your past theater experiences?

Acting in The Berenstain Bears was very different from anything I have ever done before. We had only five rehearsals, all in one week! And then we performed four shows! Two in Ocean City, one at Stockton College, and one at the Cape May Convention Center. It was extremely fast paced but it was an amazing learning experience. It gave me confidence that I can learn things very quickly and perform successfully after only a few rehearsals. Specific to The Berenstain Bears, it was also my first time playing an animal! Even if the Berenstain Bears are very much human and go through human conflict to teach lessons. All the stories are very relatable.

 

The Berenstain Bears on Stage is based on five different Berenstain Bears stories: The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby, The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room, The Berenstain Bears and the Double Dare, The Berenstain Bears Tell the Truth and The Berenstain Bears Get Stage Fright. Which one of these was your favorite and why?

My favorite story to perform… that is a hard one. If I could pick one, it would be The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room. One of the songs in this scene is actually a rap where Brother Bear and Sister Bear rap about their messy room and what toys they have. That was pretty fun for us because it seemed so random to have a rap in a musical, but the composer sure had a sense of humor! It somehow worked and was genius. Probably the most epic part of the scene though involved a closet that Brother Bear (Joey Anchondo) and I had to strategically place all of the toys into so that when Mama Bear (Chrissy Hartzell) opened the door of the closet, a lever was pulled so the toys would all fall on top of her. It caused the audience to laugh hysterically every single time! It was a lot fun.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I want to thank the Greater Ocean City Theatre Company for giving me my very first professional theatre experience this summer! It was extremely rewarding to see all of the little kids at the end of all our shows give us hugs and high fives. A few of the kids told me I was their favorite in the play, which, to be honest, means more to me than being told that my acting and singing was great for one reason: for that amount of time that I was on stage, I WAS Sister Bear to them. I was able to take them out of the real world and even after the play was over, I was still Sister Bear to them. When you are able to make a child that happy and feel that special to meet you because you inspired them, taught them a lesson, or look up to you, you did your job. I always believe that I do what I do for others, and children’s theatre is the most direct way that any actor can make a difference, in my opinion.

You Can’t Animate a Plaid Shirt

Putting book characters like the Berenstain Bears on TV is fun–
but you could call it hard fun.

This article was published in the February 27, 1981 issue of Publishers Weekly.

In our travels around the country on behalf of our eponymous bear books (27 titles, all from Random House), we have fielded many questions. These range from the straightforwardly curious (“Why do you draw just bears?” Answer: “We don’t–we also draw rocks, sunny dirt roads, trees, flowers, rainbows and even, on occasion, people.”) to the curiously straightforward (“How do you get along being together all the time?” Answer: “Ours is an old-fashioned Mom and Pop operation in which both partners do whatever needs to be done–writing, illustrating, cooking, bottle washing.”).

We find our work (and our bears) tremendously stimulating and enjoyable and, while we don’t always agree on every dot and line, we have managed to harmonize successfully over 34 years of working together as cartoonists-writers and for the past 18 as author-illustrators of children’s books. We do have one rule–a sort of unilateral veto–which has helped us over the humps. If one of us strongly objects to some point, project or approach, it is dropped without argument.

Not long ago a child asked us an interesting question, as children so often do: “Is it fun to do the bear books, or is it hard?” Our answer, after pondering a moment, was that it’s both–or to coin an evasion: it’s hard fun.

One of the more persistent and intriguing questions we have been asked over the years is, “Why don’t you put the bears on television?” The answer is that we finally have. After about eight years of trying with various degrees of unsuccess, we managed to make the jump from printed page to glowing tube with an animated special called The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree, which was shown on NBC in December 1979.

The process of getting on television is very different from that of getting published. Stories abound of books which were submitted to 10, 20, even 30 publishers before finding acceptance. Not so in television. In the world of network television, it’s three strikes – NBC, ABC, CBS – and out. A curious aspect of our experience was that after we had proposed for years and had networks, producers and potential sponsors dispose, the TV situation opened up so abruptly that it was disconcerting – rather like reaching to open a door you didn’t know was automatic. In fact, our first bear special “happened” so quickly that the usual order of events – first the book, then the show based on the book – was reversed.

The experience of moving our bears from the relatively controllable world of print, where there are only two of us involved in the creative process, to the multitudinous world of animation was also somewhat disconcerting. The production of a half-hour animated special (a little more than 23 minutes of air time, actually) involves not only producer, director, composer and their associates, but phalanxes of animators, background artists, designers and such graphically named practical operatives as in-betweeners, inkers and filler-inners.

The first order of business after writing the show was casting the voices. To cast the four actors who would portray our Bear Family – overbearing Papa, forbearing Mama and Brother and Sister, the two bright little cubs who bear (ouch!) with both of them – we auditioned a grand total of 28 voices. One difficulty with casting voices is that there are people attached to them – most of them talented and appealing (the kids were especially delightful: composed, professional, with not a stage mother in sight) – and with more candidates than roles, there is a large rejection factor built into the audition equation. One of the things that made casting tricky was that our show was a kind of minimusical requiring actor-singers in all roles. The decisions, as it turned out, practically made themselves. There was a positively outstanding candidate for each role, and the show was cast.

Adding to our bemusement was the fact that all the kids who auditioned knew the Berenstain Bears books and in some cases brought – along with their tapes, photos and resumes – old battered books to be signed. Eight-year-old Gabriela Glatzer, who became Sister Bear and who is nothing if not frank, explained to us in a charmingly condescending manner that while she read at the fifth-grade level, some of her little friends were familiar with our books. When Ron McLarty, our Papa Bear-narrator and a real-life papa, informed us that our books were family favorites at his house, it restored our confidence just a bit.

One of the things that had gotten in the way of our earlier efforts to put our bears on TV was our determination that, for good or ill, success or failure, we were going to retain what in the entertainment world is called “creative control.” Our earlier discussions with a succession of tanned and powerful animation moguls left us with the clear impression that, while they were interested in the Berenstain Bears and their potential for attracting a TV audience, they were not very interested in having the bears’ overprotective parents looking over their shoulders.

Not so the talented experts of Perpetual Motion Pictures, the studio which is animating the bear specials. They seemed to understand our concern lest our bears not put their best face forward on TV and worked very closely with us in interpreting our characters for animation. Some minor changes were necessary – Papa’s yellow plaid shirt presented a problem; animating a plaid apparently presents horrendous technical problems and likewise the polka dots on Mama’s dress (though we did save the dots on her hat).

While the storyboard (a sequential picture version of the script showing all the principal scenes and actions) was being done by director Mordicai Gerstein, composer-musical director Elliot Lawrence was writing the music for the show’s three songs. Hearing our lyrics sung for the first time – in the stereotypical show biz scene in which the hoarse-voiced composer rasps out the song while pounding on a battered out-of-tune piano – was at least as big a kick as seeing the bears “come to life” on the Moviola machine.

Having operated as a Mom and Pop store for so long, it took us a little while to get used to the collaborative complexities of what is essentially a film enterprise. There were meetings, story conferences, character drawings, color tests, network approvals and – yes – artistic differences. In the case of the latter, all we can remember is one occasion when we overreacted to a suggestion that Papa wear a bow tie and suit at the Christmas dinner which closes the show. (The very idea of Papa even owning anything so effete as a bow tie!)

After about nine months (surely an appropriate gestation period for our bouncy new animated baby), 15,000 drawings and prodigious applications of TLC by all the collaborators, The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree aired on NBC December 3, 1979. The show “won its slot” by a substantial margin, The New York Times said, and NBC said: “Let’s have three more shows.” And we and our partners are especially pleased and gratified that our first show has received two prizes: an international award from the Milan film and television festival, and a silver medal from the 23rd annual International Film and Television Festival of New York.

Our second special, a Thanksgiving story called The Berenstain Bears Meet Bigpaw, aired last November 20, again with gratifying results. Easter and Valentine’s specials are in production. Though our experience in helping to turn our printed page bears into talking, singing and dancing animated bears has been fun (hard fun), books remain our first love. With four new titles scheduled for fall publication and more being planned, we are absolutely married to the Berenstain Bears book series.

Television does make an interesting mistress, though.

http://www.berenstainbears.com

Memories of Stan and Jan

By Mike Berenstain

Stan and Jan in studio, late 1950s

Stan and Jan in their studio, late 1950s

     My parents used to watch the Sid Caesar show in their bedroom. This had started off as their studio, but when I came along, they needed another bedroom and so built a newer, bigger studio onto the house and converted their first studio into a bedroom. It was a bedroom with an enormous skylight in the roof. It also opened directly into the living room, separated from it by a large sliding door. The house was very modern, a very Fifties-Frank-Lloyd-Wrightish one-level, concrete slab house.

     My father used to sit down at the foot of the bed in front of the enormous console Motorola combined radio, hi-fi, television set and howl with laughter as he watched Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howie Morris and Carl Reiner cavort across the screen. He’d howl then rock back and forth in paroxysms of laughter, gradually losing his voice as he ran out of breath. My mother sat back on the bed and laughed more conventionally. All this noisy hilarity often woke me and my brother, Leo, up. We would come wandering out of our bedroom trailing stuffed snoozer dogs, down the hall to the living room and into their studio bedroom, blearily complaining of the noise and point out that sleep was elusive under such conditions. The problem was always solved by an invitation to sit down at the end of the bed and enjoy the show.

     I didn’t really understand the humor of Your Show of Shows, besides, I was very sleepy. But I enjoyed it none-the-less. Mr. Caesar made some very funny faces and Miss Coca was somehow raucous, suggestive and sweet all at once. I particularly enjoyed Sid’s German Professor with his garbled made-up Teutonic gibberish.

     When it was over, I was duly tucked back into bed with snoozer dog to drift into dreams of Caesarish mirth. The house I remember in vivid detail. I think I could describe every square inch and not just the house, but the yard as well – every bush and flower and tree – and much of the neighborhood beyond.

     There is an excruciating immediacy about my memories of childhood which I find difficult to account for or to deal with. It’s as if my childhood was following close behind so that when I stop short or turn around, it bangs into me. It’s right there, always.

www.berenstainbears.com