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

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