Book #6 – Inside, Outside, Upside Down

Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002. 

We were working on the text of The Bear Scouts, which would be our fourth bear book, when Ted called from La Jolla.  He was starting a whole new line called “Bright and Early Books.”  It would be much younger than Beginner Books – a reading-readiness line.

“We’re very excited about it,” he continued.  “There’s nothing like it on the market.  So put the scout thing aside and see what you can come up with for the new line.”

“And, oh yes,” he added in an aside that sent our hearts down into our shoes.  “Don’t do bears on this project.  We’ve got enough bears for a while.  Anyway, you can’t do bears forever.”

Ted’s excitement was electrifying, but the effect was short-circuited by his “don’t do bears” edict.  It was déjà vu all over again.  We had, in our innocence, thought we coulddo bears forever.  But maybe Ted was right.  Maybe we couldn’t.

Most of our story ideas are consciously thought up.  But sometimes ideas come unbidden.  The phrase “inside, outside, upside down” was such an idea.  But what was it?  What did it mean?  It would make an interesting title.  But where would the title take us?  Ted wanted something completely different, huh?  A whole new feel?  A whole new look?  We’d give him a look that would knock his socks off.

We noodled around until we found out what Inside, Outside, Upside Down was about.  It was about a red gorilla who sat inside a hollow tree, a crow wearing a magenta beret who was outside sitting on a branch, and a two-toed sloth who was hanging upside down on a limb.  Ted wanted different.  We’d give him different.  We took the red gorilla, the crow with the magenta beret, and the two-toed sloth and sent them on a topsy-turvy trip to town.  When they arrived, they proclaimed, “We went to town!  Inside, outside, upside down!”

We fetched it up to New York and set it before Ted.  “Wow!” he said as he leafed through it.  “Fabulous! —I love ‘em!  But I’ve been talking to the salesmen and they think that since your bears are so well established, we ought to have at least one bear book in the new line.  But this is a great concept.  Maybe you can convert it to bears.  What do you think?”  What did we think?  You know that song “I Think I’m Goin’ out of My Head”?  That’s what we thought.

We arrived home in a deep funk.  We remained so for most of the next day.  Jan came out of it first.  She wanted to be alone.  She took a pencil and drawing pad into the yard and sat at our weathered old picnic table.  By late afternoon she had penciled a whole new bear version of Inside, Outside, Upside Down.  In fifteen pictures and sixty-six words, she told how Small Bear goes into a box that gets dollied onto a truck and taken to town.  The box falls off the truck, whereupon Small Bear climbs out and runs home shouting, “Mama! Mama! I went to town inside, outside, upside down!”

Inside, Outside, Upside Down was published by Random House in 1968 – by 2002 it had sold 3 million copies.

Book #5 – The Bears’ Vacation

Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002.

There were occasions when we stood on principle and resisted Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss).  Consider the case of the length of Papa Bear’s finger-nails and toe-nails for example:  “Papa’s finger- and toe-nails are too damn long!” pronounced Ted in the course of going through The Bears’ Vacation.  “They make my teeth hurt!”

It was bad news when Ted’s teeth hurt.  But artistic integrity required us to take a stand.  We backed our stand with a letter from a boy who held a contrary opinion.  “I really like your books,” said the letter.  “My favorite character is Papa Bear.  His fingernails and toenails are awesome!”

Ted backed off.  Kid’s opinions had a certain standing with him.

The Bears Vacation was published by Random House in 1968.

Book #4 – The Bear Scouts

Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002.

Books that followed the first two (The Big Honey Hunt and The Bike Lesson): The Bears’ Picnic, The Bear Scouts, The Bears’ Vacation, The Bears’ Christmas, and The Bear Detectives, were all variations on the theme established in The Big Honey Hunt.  Papa sets out to instruct Small Bear in some aspect of the art of living and ends up badly the worse for wear, with Small Bear expressing his appreciation for the fine lesson Papa has taught him.

In all these stories, Papa spares himself nothing.  In his effort to fulfill his responsibility as Small Bear’s First Teacher, he goes over a cliff, gets caught in a whirlpool, runs afoul of skunks, porcupines, mosquitoes, crocodiles, and a hay baler, mistakes the open mouth of a whale for an underwater cave, suffers himself to be struck in the seat of the pants by lightning, gets dumped on by a garbage truck, and receives such other punishments as a couple of determined cartoonists could devise.

The Bear Scouts was published by Random House in 1967.

Book #3 – The Bears’ Picnic

Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002.

With our snappy new name (we didn’t have the nerve to actually put our name in the titles for years) and The Bike Lesson under our belts, we really were off to the races with our bear series.  The books that followed, The Bears’ Picnic, The Bear Scouts, The Bears’ Vacation, The Bears’ Christmas, The Bear Detectives, were all variations on the theme established in Honey Hunt and Bike Lesson: Papa sets out to instruct Small Bear in some aspect of the art of living and ends up badly the worse for wear, with Small Bear expressing his appreciation for the fine lesson Papa has taught him.

Although the editorial/authorial road ahead was now reasonably smooth, we did hit an occasional pothole.  The Beginner Book format offered the luxury of full-color endpapers.  They were great fun to do.  We had a wonderful time drawing every imaginable kind of picnic food for The Bears’ Picnic’s endpapers: sliced olives with pimento, a wedge of Swiss cheese, pickles, liverwurst, three kinds of pie, and chocolate cake to die for.  Ted’s response: “Looks like a damn delicatessen.  Do something else.”  We looked at it.  Ted was right.  It did look like a delicatessen.

The Bear’s Picnic was published by Random House in 1966.

Sketch of endpaper rejected by Ted Geisel.

Endpaper as it appeared in The Bears’ Picnic.

How it all started …

Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002.

It was when Stan and Jan’s then four-year-old son Leo asked for Dr. Seuss’ McElligot’s Pool for Christmas that it all started.

We became Dr. Seuss fans. But more than that, his books scratched an old itch. We had for some time been thinking of doing a children’s book, perhaps even two or three. Dr. Seuss scratched that itch.

We knew from our first noodlings that our book would be about bears ― a family of bears. We knew 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 his 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 similarly polka-dotted dust cap and was very like Jan, and a bright, lively little cub (Small Bear) who was a lot like Leo. Michael, not yet one, didn’t make the cut.

 It took us two months to write and illustrate the manuscript of our first children’s book.

At the same time, The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss’s epoch-making response to “Why Johnny can’t read” controversy was sweeping the country.  In seventy-two pages of rhymed, limited-vocabulary text, Dr. Seuss changed the way children learn to read in America. The book was so successful that it led to the development of Beginner Books, a revolutionary new line of easy-to-read children’s books.  Beginner Books was a new division of Random House.  Its trademark (and battle cry) was “I can read it all by myself,” and its president and editor-in-chief was Theodor Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.

Beginner Books sounded like a good destination for our own children’s book.  Our would-be Beginner Book was called Freddy Bear’s Spanking.  It told the story of Freddy Bear, who, having misbehaved, attempts to negotiate himself out of a spanking by proposing a series of alternative punishments.  After much negotiation with Mama and Papa Bear, he says, “Oh, the heck with it.  Let’s go ahead with the spanking.”

After a contract was signed, we were summoned to New York for a meeting with the editorial board of Beginner Books.  The board consisted of Ted (Dr. Seuss); Helen Palmer, Ted’s wife and a longtime children’s author in her own right; and Phyllis Cerf, wife of the chairman and co-founder of Random House (Bennett Cerf of What’s My Line).

Though Ted didn’t wear a big red-and-white-striped top hat like the Cat in the Hat, he shared many characteristics with his feline alter ego.  Like the Cat, he could be charming, courtly, congenial, and delightful to be with; also like the Cat, he could be demanding, dismissive, and downright difficult.

Our first meeting began with introductions and pleasantries.  However, a slightly disquieting sense of déjà vu hung over the exchange of pleasantries.  No wonder.  We were literally surrounded by Freddy Bear’s Spanking.  It was plastered all over the walls―thumb tacked in sequence to large corkboards mounted on three walls of the small room.

It’s called storyboarding,” explained Ted.  “It’s a movie technique.  I learned it from Frank Capra.  It really lets you get a sense of how the story’s working.”  If it was good enough for Frank Capra, it was good enough for us.

“We like your bears.  We think they’re fun,” Ted continued.  “We like the idea of a family.

“And we love your drawings,” said Helen.

Hooray for Helen.

“But we need to know more about them.”

Ted smoked.  We didn’t.  There was no way Papa Bear was going to smoke.

We moved to the wall display of Freddy Bear’s Spanking, where Ted conducted a guided tour of the thousand and one things wrong with our book.  It was too long.  It was too complicated.  Didn’t we realize these books were supposed to help kids learn to read?  Remember the Beginner Book slogan: “I can read it all by myself.”  We had too many contractions.  We had too many female rhymes.  We didn’t know rhymes had gender.  But they did. The sentences were much too long―some of them looked like the long, long trail a winding.  “Think short sentences―easy words and short sentences.  Think beginning, middle, and end.  As the story stands now, you’ve got a good beginning and a good end.  But your middle needs work … a lot of work.”

“Well, Berenstains,” said Ted, coming up for air, “what do you think so far?”

What did we think?  We didn’t know what to think. But Ted was all smiles and warmth as he took our hands in his.  “Berenstains,” he said, “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be working with you.  I just know we’re going to get a wonderful book.”

After nursing our wounds and feeling sorry for ourselves for a few days, we got to work on draft number two, which, over the months, was followed by draft number three and draft number four.  Our modest dream of doing a funny book about a family of bears who lived in a tree was turning into a walking nightmare.  We were dutifully cranking Ted’s recommendations into draft after draft.

Helen and Phyllis finally called a halt to all the changes.  They suggested that the honey-hunting sequence in the original story had survived all the changes.  Why not, they suggested, take that sequence and expand it into a whole book?

And that’s exactly what we did.

We went home and started from scratch.  The 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 and follow that bee and 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.

We roughed out the story and sent it to Ted, who thought it was just fine.  “Go ahead with the finish,” he said.

The fever had broken.  The crisis was past.  We had our Bears back and all was right in the tree house.

The Big Honey Hunt was published in the spring of 1962.