Thursday, December 01, 2005

An Ode to All Things Berenstain, Upon the Death of Stan

I’ve traveled many places in recent years, but I admit that the one place I’ve always wished I could go is down a sunny dirt road, deep in Bear Country, to the home of the Berenstain Bears.

Though Brother and Sister Bear have stayed roughly the same age in the First Time Books series that began in the mid 1970s and continues until today, the issues they’ve faced in each installment have changed with the times. As a child, I could sympathize with the conflict that led the Bear cubs to draw a harsh red line down the floor of their playhouse – my sister and I had a similar line in the back seat of our parents’ car (of course, while Brother and Sister sorted out their differences and erased said line by the end of the picture book, my own sister and I continue to sport a sibling rivalry that puts many international conflicts to shame).

Together with the Bear Family, I started school, visited doctors, watched my own mama go back to work, stayed with new babysitters, picked up toy-strewn playrooms, and even went out for a team (the Bear siblings had much more success with this than I did; while they learned teamwork and honed skills, I was benched while the boys on my soccer team led us to an undefeated season. Of course, I saved us from one goal and thereby earned my trophy, but I remember with some embarrassment that my extraordinary save was entirely accidental – as in, the ball hit me in the ass while I desperately searched in the wrong direction for signs of play).

I read about the Bear family’s need for a healthy diet after eating too much junk food, and saw them appreciate other forms of entertainment after watching too much T.V. Though I learned about the importance of moderation in many aspects of life from the Berenstains, I never actually applied that lesson to my Berenstain book collection: it numbers in the hundreds.

The reason for this is that unlike most children, I never grew out of a desire to read of the Bear family’s adventures. As a high school Spanish student, I learned inclusiveness and the present progressive verb tense in “Los Osos Berenstain No Se Permiten Ninas.” (As a China specialist in grad school, I harbor a fantasy of translating the books to share with the Chinese speaking world.) I howled when the Beary Bubby toy craze hit Bear Country, and Papa got swept up along with Brother and Sister in collecting the little creatures in a frenzy that paralleled the US obsession with Beanie Babies. In general, I loved the Bear versions of popular ideas: Sister Bear’s Bearbie Dolls, the dramatic presentation of Grizzlystiltskin, a visit to Santa Bear.

Over the years, the topics became more sophisticated: the Bear family explores God in “The Berenstain Bears and the Big Question,” reproduction in “The Birds, the Bees and the Berenstain Bears,” and racial prejudice in “The Berenstain Bears and the New Neighbors,” in which Bear Country becomes home to the Panda Family, and Papa Bear comes to terms with their differences – which include a preference for bamboo over honey and a lack of knowledge of football.

Ask me anything about the Berenstain Bears: I am a superfan. I joined the Berenstain Bears Treehouse Fan Club. . . when I was 18. When the series expanded from First Time Books and First Time Readers to include Berenstain Bear Scouts mysteries and Big Chapter Book stories, I was the first on the band-wagon. Never mind the fact that I was a college student and had long mastered the art of reading a picture-less novel – I was smitten by all things Berenstain. I can still sing the theme song from the old Saturday morning cartoon, set to the tune of Stars and Stripes Forever. It wasn’t until I joined the junior high band that I learned the song had alternate, non-bear-related lyrics.

Like all things popular and much-beloved, the Berenstain Bear books have come under much criticism over the years. I was first introduced to the supposed difference between mass-produced Bear adventures and “quality” children’s literature when I worked in an elementary school as an Americorps*VISTA after college. I was creating a curriculum for a family reading program, and learned the hard way that my favorite books to read with my family as a child didn’t make the cut. Papa Bear was a bumbler – a travesty for turning the ideal of the father into a big kid that had to be controlled and raised by Mama Bear. The cartoonish pictures weren’t quality art – no Caldecott medals here – and the themes failed to embrace a diversity of cultures to which children of color could relate.

The problem, however, is that when I sat down with my after-school reading program kids in the school library and told them to pick out books they wanted to enjoy together, they would inevitably declare the latest and greatest Newberry award winner “a bit boring” and reach for something Berenstain. Don’t get me wrong – among the medal winners and among the books considered high quality children’s literature, there are many that I love and adore. For every new book that is a little too socially conscious for a five year old, there is one that is timeless and lovely. But appreciation for these supposed “masterpieces” should not come at the expense of recognizing what children love to read; making children love to read is, after all, the point of creating children’s literature.

Just a few years ago, I spent a long afternoon in line on the Mall in Washington, D.C. queuing for autographs from Stan and Jan; when the line was cut off a few people ahead of me and the Berenstain family escorted away, I was easily as disappointed as any of the five-year-olds in line behind me. Maturity has only taught me not to cry. In public, anyway.

This week marks the end of an era of my life as a Berenstain devotee: Stan Berenstain, co-creator of the series I love, has died. Because the Berenstain Bears are now a family business, the books will live on, with future volumes written collectively by The Berenstains, rather than simply Stan and Jan. My own collection, which spans a longer frame of time on this earth than I do, will include these new volumes, but I know I’ll remember 2005 as the year of transition.

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January 9, 2006 at 5:11 PM  

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