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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

Advertisements

Why Bears?

Treehouse and familyBears have been a staple of children’s books ever since Goldilocks decided to engage in a little illegal entry at an inadequately secured home in the woods.

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!

www.berenstainbears.com