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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Mother’s Day with It’s All in the Family

For Mother’s Day we are revisiting Stan & Jan’s cartoon, All in the Family that ran for decades in McCall‘s and Good Housekeeping. These classic cartoons illustrate the ups and downs of Motherhood. We hope you give a big bear hug of appreciation to all of the Moms in your life this Mother’s Day!

Mothers Day Blog - 2Mothers Day Blog - 4Mothers Day Blog - 5Mothers Day Blog - 6Mothers Day Blog - 3Mothers Day Blog - 7Mothers Day Blog - 1

 

Tree House Trivia

About Our Name

People are often curious about the spelling of “Berenstain,” a phenomenon that’s much older than the Bears themselves. As Stan Berenstain recalled in Down a Sunny Dirty Road, the 2002 autobiography he co-wrote with wife Jan, even his fourth grade teacher had questions:

“On the very first morning, when [Miss McKinney] called the roll, she took exception to my name. She said there was no such name as Berenstain. The name, as everyone knew, was Bernstein—and that was what my name would be, at least in her room. When I raised my hand and protested that Berenstain had always been my name, she silenced me with an icy stare and said she didn’t approve of people who changed their names” (26).

no such name “Berenstain,” it seems, is less common than other, similar variants. But there’s a simple explanation. According to family lore, the spelling results from an immigration officer’s attempt to record phonetically an accented version of the traditional Jewish name “Bernstein” as pronounced by Stan Berenstain’s grandfather. He had come to America from Ukraine, where the name would have sounded something like “Ber’nsheytn.” Since then, the family has always spelled it Berenstain, as it was originally documented.

On the Road & Down A Sunny Dirt Road
Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

When Stan and Jan Berenstain decided to look for a an agent to assist them in getting their first children’s book published, they chose Sterling Lord, who was recommended to them by a number of different editors. Lord is perhaps most famous for jump-starting the career of one of America’s most iconic trouble-making writers: Jack Kerouac. As Vanity Fair‘s John Heilpern wrote in a 2013 profile of Lord, “Without [this] literary agent and gentleman of the old school…chances are we would never have heard of the mythic Kerouac.” Kerouac’s signature, jazz-influenced style—something he referred to as “spontaneous bop prosody”—represented a radical break with literary tradition, and not many agents were willing to take a chance on this young rebel. Lord did, getting On the Road published in 1957, and the rest is history. Other notable writers represented by his agency include Ken Kesey, Howard Fast, John Irving, and, of course, the Berenstains!

DIY Bride

In 1943, Jan Berenstain–then Janice Grant–took a year off from the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art to contribute to the United States’ war efforts. After completing a two-week training at the Bok Vocational School in South Philadelphia, Jan began working as an aircraft riveter at Brill’s trolley car factory, which had a Navy contract to assemble center wing sections for PBY flying boats. But wing assembly wasn’t the only example of Jan’s metalworking during the war. When she and Stan married in 1946, they wore wedding rings she herself had fashioned out of airplane aluminum.

Riveting class

Jan’s riveting class celebrates graduation

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

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.

www.berenstainbears.com

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

www.berenstainbears.com

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.

http://www.berenstainbears.com