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February 27, 2012

On The Berenstain Bears

As the death of Berenstain Bears co-creator Jan Berenstain was announced today, I thought it would be a good time to finally write the Berenstain Bears post that I’ve been thinking about writing for ages. About how the Berenstain Bears were some of my favourite books as a child, and I wanted to live in their tree house more than I wanted to live anywhere else on the planet. I did think it was weird that Mama Bear was always in pyjamas, and also that Brother Bear kept turning up randomly dressed as a hobo in Dr. Seuss books, but I loved these books so completely, and their details are forever contained in my brain– the sitter with Cat’s Cradle, the messy room (I wanted a peg-board!) and Brother’s bird’s nest connection, Sister’s polka-dots, that they lived in a cave before they moved into the tree house, and their various dealings with the medical establishment. It never occurred to me that these books weren’t the very best that literature had to offer, and I read them over and over again.

And though it’s unfashionable to say, as an adult and a parent, I still like them a lot. In fact, I’ve found them enormously useful as a parent. We read …Go to the Doctor over and over before we got our flu shots last Fall, which made the experience a breeze. When faced with the prospect of a giant needle, Harriet felt secure in the knowledge that this was just like what happened to Sister Bear. When Harriet went through her whole “Big Bad Wolf’s going to get me and there are skeletons under my bed” phase, Papa’s lines from …in the Dark were perfect with which to explain that the pictures in our imagination are harmless, and moreover that they’re even good for us. I’ve also tried to pull out …Get the Gimmes to battle meltdowns with, though I haven’t had as much luck with that, but the fault is with the girl and not the book, I think.

Of course, I see now that the books are so sexist, are preachy and boring, that the later books in the series are terrible, and I know there is a whole world of books out there that are ever so much better. (I am also driven crazy by inconsistencies in the illustrations– the tree house and vicinity are remarkably different in every book, undermining the verisimilitude!!)I don’t consider them books proper and in our house they’re relegated to the box in the living room with truck-shaped board books and picture dictionaries, the kind of books we’d never lower ourselves to read at bedtime. But I also appreciate them when I see Harriet loving them as much as I did when I was little, their simple formula reflecting elements of her world and helping her begin to understand it. And the connection she feels towards them is showing her how magical reading can be.

5 thoughts on “On The Berenstain Bears”

  1. Gillian says:

    I love that treehouse, too. I’ve given the Berenstain Bear’s New Baby as a gift a number of times and I always wonder if Brother Bear’s old bed and his new bed will make an impression on the child I’m giving it to like it did on me. I can call up the illustrations in those books like I can with no others, save the Dennis Lee books, and even if we do relegate the Berenstain Bears for lack of literary integrity, there’s something in their lastingness that begs their validity, hey? Everything was so sharp and curly in those books – Mama Bear’s fingernails, the bed knobs, even parts of their cars. Whatever it means, I won’t forget them. My kids probably won’t either.

  2. carin says:

    Magic comes in many forms! It’s nice that Harriet has more than one book box/shelf to explore. You’ve reminded me of these stories and, in particular, the going to the doctor one may prove to be the perfect gift for a niece.

  3. Kristin says:

    I loved them as a child too, but I haven’t rediscovered the magic as an adult. Maybe I’ve been reading the wrong ones to the kids–I have heard the early ones are better.

    1. Kerry says:

      Early ones are much better. Not far into the game, I think the Berenstains totally lost the plot.

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