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Bears in the House

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #85, 2008.

An interview with Mike Berenstain, son of the famous Stan and Jan Berenstain

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Mary Pride

Berenstains + illustrations from Down a Sunny Dirt Road
Photo and illustrations courtesy of Down a Sunny Dirt Road by Stan & Jan Berenstain, copyright ©2002 by Berenstain Enterprises, Inc. Used by permission.

Papa Bear's character is shaking hands with his creator, Stan Berenstain. Mama Bear meets her counterpart, Jan Berenstain. Leo inspired Small Bear, and Mike is in the foreground wondering, "Which bear am I?"

Quickly, now, answer this question: "How many Berenstain Bears books do you have in your house?"

If you're like me, or like just about any family with young children I've ever known, at least a few of those charming books have tagged along home from the bookstore or library.

Hundreds of millions of "Berenstain Bear" books have been sold worldwide over the years. It seemed at one point that we must have bought a million of them ourselves! So when I received an email inviting me to interview Mike Berenstain, son of the famous Stan and Jan Berenstain, about his all-new faith-based line of books starring the famous bear family, naturally I jumped at the chance.

The new
The new "faith based" series by Mike Berenstain, son of the famous Stan & Jan Berenstain.
Before I contacted Mike himself, his publicist urged me to obtain a copy of his parents' autobiography, Down a Sunny Dirt Road, published in 2002, before his father's death. Through its pages the discerning reader can observe the roots of the Berenstain family's ongoing success in the field of art: love of learning, freedom to explore followed by structured training, good examples from parents and mentors, persistence, and dedication. Hmm... sounds like the spirit of homeschooling! Now, let's find out how the "next generation" of Berenstain books has come about.

PHS: How did you and your mother start collaborating?

MIKE: The Berenstain Bears were created in 1962. I became a children's author/illustrator in the mid-1970s. By the mid-1980s, the Berenstain Bears had become so popular that my parents were unable to meet the demand for their work. So they asked me to help them fulfill some deadlines that were looming. At first a part-time job, within a few years this had become a full-time undertaking. Since my dad's death in 2005, my mom and I have just kept on creating books together.

PHS: How did your parents instruct you in art, book writing, publishing, etc? This is an area in which you were "homeschooled," so our readers would love to know how it fit into your overall education and home life.

MIKE: Literally my earliest memory is of my mother encouraging me to draw. I was down on the floor of my parents' studio scribbling on a sheet of yellow copy paper with a big black sketch pencil. My mother came over, looked at the mess I had made and, pointing out a random shape in the tangle, exclaimed, "Look, you've drawn a fish!" The shape did look a little like a fish and she showed me how I could color it in green to make it stand out. I went on to find and color in other similar shapes in my scribbles. Then, of course, I started to intentionally draw shapes that looked like animals.

As I got older, both my mother and father gave me both general encouragement about art and very detailed instruction in art techniques - for instance in pen line and watercolor washes. When I got seriously interested in art as a profession, they gave me drawing and painting lessons that supplemented those that I had in art school. This was very helpful, since they knew classical techniques they had been taught in the 1930s and 1940s which were forgotten or abandoned in art schools by the early 1970s.

PHS: What inspired your parents to start the Berenstain Bears series?

MIKE: They were magazine cartoonists (Saturday Evening Post, McCalls, Good Housekeeping, etc.) doing cartoons about kids and families. When they had kids of their own, my older brother, Leo, and me, they became interested in children's books. Leo and I were big Dr. Seuss fans and my parents knew that Ted Seuss Geisel had started out as a magazine cartoonist like them. They also knew that he was an editor and publisher as well as being an author/illustrator. They submitted a story about a family of bears to Geisel and he liked it. He decided to call the series "The Berenstain Bears." "They're your bears - like a circus act," he said. And the rest is history.

PHS: Why do you think the series is so popular generation after generation?

The Berenstain family in the 1960's
The Berenstain family in the 1960's. From left to right: Leo, Mike, Stan, and Jan Berenstain.
Photo courtesy Mike Berenstain.
MIKE: The books focus on family - especially the relationship between children and their parents - the most important of all relationships for young children. The stories also focus on everyday themes that everyone can relate to and they try to offer helpful advice and models for dealing with problems that everyone experiences. We try to make the stories entertaining and funny - we like jokes - and we try to make the characters distinctive and interesting. Also, we put great effort and care into the quality of the art, though we do not do so in a way that makes a technical display of our skills. All our art craft is in service of the story.

PHS: How much did your parents draw on actual family experiences and personalities for their original "bear family" characters?

MIKE: The characters are exaggerations of ourselves. Mama is a lot like my mother - though even more calm and sensible than she is - and Papa is even more excitable and accident-prone than my father really was. Brother, Sister, and now, Honey Bear, are amalgams of myself, my brother, and our own four children.

PHS: Do you have a favorite Berenstain Bears book?

MIKE: I've always had a soft spot for the ones that were created when I was growing up, because I was able to relate to them from a childish point of view. One that I particularly enjoyed was The Berenstain Bears' Picnic, which I thought was very funny. It had scenes of a series of apparently ideal picnic spots going wrong. The comic dilemmas of the Bear Family tickled my funny bone.

PHS: What advice can you give to families who work together in their business?

MIKE: You need to have a lot of respect for each other and consideration for each other's knowledge, skills and points of view.

PHS: Why did you decide to start writing faith-based stories featuring The Berenstain Bears?

Mike Berenstain with his mom, Jan
Mike Berenstain with his mom, Jan, today.
Photo courtesy Mike Berenstain.
MIKE: Over the years, we received a lot of feedback from Christian families who really appreciated our books dealing with traditional family values and teaching good ethics and morals. It was clear to us that these families are among our most dedicated fans. As a Christian, myself, I wanted to do books dealing with faith issues that would be directly relevant and useful to these families. My parents both thought this was a good idea, so we developed the concept for the Zonderkidz series together.

PHS: Do you consider your new series a natural sequel to the original Berenstain Bears stories, or a whole new direction?

MIKE: I consider it a natural outgrowth. Many of the subjects we have always dealt with - telling the truth, for instance - are of great concern and relevance to families of faith, while many of the subjects we deal with in the new series - the Golden Rule, for instance - have universal relevance but have a faith focus in this new version.

Bears in the Light

Michael's new "Living Lights" series of soft-cover picture books (pictured above, to the right) focus on a range of inspirational topics, such as doing the right thing, saying your prayers, and going to Sunday school. Over 100,000 copies of the books sold in the first six weeks after release. Zonderkidz plans to bring out two more this spring, and another six in the future. We'll be looking for them.

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