Berenstein Bears, Finding Joy in Kindness and Civility

29 Feb

A few months ago, Culture Sprout found the Barenstein Bear books in her school library. She is a bona fide ursaphile, if such a word exists–loving all things to do with bears, especially of the stuffed and cartoon variety. Week after week she brough home a new Berenstain Bears book for us to read together or to read on her own. She was delighted to discover that she had about five of her own Berenstain Bear books and we began reading those, too.

The Berenstain Bears

Image via Wikipedia

At first read, I was a bit underwhelmed. Culture Sprout has long-since passed from the picture book only phase (not to say we don’t read picture books) and these seemed a bit basic for her.  Then I paid attention to the words.

Here’s what I discovered:

  • The Berenstain Family teaches their children to be kind, polite, considerate, and thoughtful.
  • Brother and Sister often get into some trouble (books have titles such as Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Money/Friends/School), discover that they don’t like the way they have behaved (or their parents don’t), correct or apologize for the behavior, and learn a lesson. Papa raises his voice sometimes, but his love is always evident. Mama worries and frets and occasionally yells, but she’s always available to help solve a problem.
  • The Berenstain Family teaches that apologies work if you mean it.
  • They are big advocates of treating others the way you want to be treated is always the way to go.
  • People are all different and when a family of Panda Bear moves in and plants a bamboo (!) garden, it’s fun to find out how their food, traditions, practices are different and even more fun to discover how much we have in common.
  • Brother and Sister Bear experience many of the emotions and situations that challenge any child (fear of the doctor; jealousy of a friend or sibling; desire for a new pet, etc.) and their story provides a nice springboard for a discussion.
  • Charlotte wants to talk about the mistakes Brother and Sister made, and sometimes how she can see the same things in her own behavior.
  • While the books teach moral lessons, they are  (or universally religious) and definitely not pedantic.

What I didn’t know until yesterday is that the Berenstains have been writing these books for 50 years, literally teaching two generations about the importance of family and kindness and acceptance of difference through 300 books. I’m flabbergasted and awestruck.

Cover of "The Berenstain Bears' New Baby&...

Cover of The Berenstain Bears' New Baby

Last night, in a fitting tribute, we read  The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby. First published in 1974, this book expands the family from Mama, Papa and Small Bear with the addition of Sister Bear. Small Bear (who becomes Brother Bear) outgrows his handcrafted baby bed just in time to hand it down to his new little sister.  I love the easy acceptance of  a new baby, even though Small Bear had not realized Mama was pregnant (he did notice that it was getting harder to sit on her lap!).

While many of the Berenstain Bear books are timeless, this one does reveal its moment of publication. Just one year after the first commercial publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves (which was originally published as a 12-page newsprint handout in 1971, and formalized as a book by Simon & Schuster in 1973), in the early moments of the women’s health movement, Sister Bear arrives while Papa and Brother are in the woods making a new big boy bed.  When Papa and Brother leave, Mama is very pregnant, patting her belly, and smiling knowingly as she closes the door. When they return a few hours later, Mama is tucking the new baby into the baby bed. Mama hasn’t changed and doesn’t look like she’s gone through anything. Sister is dressed, smiling, and sporting a pink bow. And no one asks where the baby came from.Fait accompli, a family of four. I was tickled and relieved that Charlotte didn’t ask me where the baby came from! But, the point was that Brother accepted her and looked forward to being the big kid. Subsequent books deal with sibling rivalry and sibling friendship.

I’m sure that Jan and Stan (and their son Dan) Berenstain spent more effort to create these wonderful books than Mama Bear seems to have (alone!) to bring Sister into the treehouse.  To the Berenstain family, our thanks for enriching children’s literature. Goodnight, Mama Bear.


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