A Trip to Bear Country
Notes on the gold standard of children's lit
I have wanted to say something about the Berenstain Bears for some time.
Simply put, the Bears are a treasure in children’s literature: memorable characters in often uproariously funny storylines that illustrate baseline traditional cultural values in a way that isn’t boringly preachy but that seamlessly integrates story and ethical content. What more could a parent want?
I consider myself something of a scholarly expert on the topic at this point, having read and reread the dozens of their books we own and others on loan from various public libraries now for more than a decade. If I didn’t already have a doctorate, I might well apply to an English program and whip up a new thesis on this subject.
In keeping with my self-appointed title of “Berenstain Bears Scholar,” I feel obligated to say that my research on the present piece was hindered by the fact that our many BB books are scattered around the house, in several disorganized piles, and I didn’t have the time to wade through them all. Disconcertingly, for a while I couldn’t even find our copy of the Bears book that was my elder daughter’s favorite, The BB’s Go to Camp. (Here’s a readthrough.) The part she most loved was the sleepover on Spook Hill atop Skull Rock (I always read those words with a scary voice), and I just adore the invocation of Native American mythology, which I absorbed eagerly as a child along with every other body of myth I could find. Happily, I did finally locate our copy, and my youngest and I read it a few times over the past week or so in celebration of the discovery.
Of course, today, you’d be instantly facing charges of microaggressions and cultural appropriation for finding a story of “the Great Grizzly as Big as a Mountain, the Soaring Eagle who Filled the Sky, and the Mighty Salmon whose Colors Made the Rainbow” at all admirable.
A few highlights of my own decade-plus reading the series with my kids:
The Spooky Old Tree (a readthrough with great spooky music and sound effects!)
This is a great early reader, the tale of three cubs slipping out in the night to explore a local haunted site. What kid didn’t dream of such adventures? Bears in the Night, another spooky BB tale, is in the same hardcover collection in which we found this one.
Because ghost stories were probably the first genre I loved as a kid, even before I knew what a genre was, I introduced my kids to it as soon as I could justify it. The Bears’ scary tales made it easy to do so pretty early, as they are a little spooky without being at all too much for even little ones to handle.
The Berenstains handled this genre of ghostly and other such topics with exquisite skill. Go to Camp has a wonderful bit of it in the big summer camp powwow atop Spook Hill, and the Berenstains do a more readerly advanced treatment of the inevitable kid’s confrontation with The Bad Dream and fear of the dark (In The Dark).
All of these are among my Bears’ favorites. Reading them with my little one, or just thinking about them as I’m doing now, takes me back to my own childhood and my first encounters with tales of things that go bump in the night. I have never quite figured out how this works, and it sounds upside-down, but work it somehow does in my head: no literature makes me feel more protected and safe than the ghost story. I suppose it’s some version of displacing anxieties and fears of my own into the fictional setting, recognizing that they undergo a kind of purging in their transformation into literature, releasing all the fear and leaving only the fun thrill of something just scary enough to make you jump in pleasure, assured that it’s just a story and at story’s end you’re back in the real world, safe and sound.
Go on a Picnic
One of my little one’s preferred scenes in the whole genre. Papa wants to lead the family to the world’s perfect picnic spot but, as always, proves a bit incompetent and instead produces lots of misadventures, including encounters with marauding crowds of picnickers, a torrential downpour, and an attack from a swarm of mosquitoes near a hidden swamp. Add some pretend mosquitoes (using the free hand that isn’t holding the book) and sound effects (ping! ping! ping! as they bite) and the effect is enhanced.
I note in passing with great satisfaction that this is also Mike Berenstain’s favorite of the Bears’ stories.
I tremendously appreciate the parenting realism of the series.
Mama and Papa Bear are pretty model parents, but they are not perfect. Indeed, some of their parenting practice would certainly run afoul of the contemporary academic literature in child psychology, which assures us that any expression of parental frustration or anger with child behavior is beyond the pale, and probably at least borderline abusive with massive destructive effects on the child’s personality all the way into adulthood.
But people who have actually been parents will know that keeping one’s temper in check all the time is impossible. The question is where do you try to push the interaction with the unavoidable emotional energy generated when kids misbehave egregiously, as they will inevitably do?
Papa gets upset and shouts at the cubs to be quiet from time to time or angrily sends them to their room, but Mama intervenes to both vindicate Papa’s reaction (the cubs are acting terribly, after all) and to harness it into an effective solution for the problem. Frequently, Gran and Gramps have to solve the problem, in a shameless celebration of the wisdom of age! And sometimes it’s Mama who has had all she can take, and then it’s Papa’s turn to step in and give her space to recover and guide the cubs in the right direction.
Perhaps I should not be so comforted by fictional characters, but I feel better about my own imperfect parenting when I see Mama and Papa Bear occasionally lapsing from their best selves under the constant and intense pressure of dealing with young children. (And they don’t even have a teenager who can express her disdain for you and your dumb rules in rather more skillfully hurtful ways than those available to children the age of Brother and Sister Bear!).
Mama has a near nervous breakdown because of the cubs’ overbooked schedules in Too Much Pressure. I am able to sympathize with her experience on a weekly basis in our own hectic lives. Papa blows a gasket when the cubs throw fits in public to get goodies they want, and I immediately think of how monstrously difficult it is for me to stay mild-mannered when my little one is volcanically erupting over something trivial, responding to my requests to calm down by shrieking at a decibel-level that could flatten a log cabin “I’M NOT ANGRY!!!!! STOP SAYING I’M ANGRY RIGHT NOW!!!!!” (I’m laughing now writing it, but that’s much harder to pull off in the moment…)
The moral lessons the cubs (and our young readers) learn in the series are rock-solid conservative: manners are an essential part of collective life; materialism (“the gimmies”) is not a recipe for a happy life; the natural world is way more interesting and life-affirming than screens and media; arguments and fights with loved ones are unavoidable, but we should be willing to quickly forgive and forget; blaming others constantly and failing to take personal responsibility is a major character flaw; there is great joy in giving; the truth is always, always better than any other option.
What are the sources of the cultural conservatism of the series?
Stan and Jan were a Jewish and Episcopalian couple, both born in the early 1920s. Stan served in WWII, as did so many young men in his generation. The couple lived into the 2000s, and their son Mike took over full control of the enterprise in 2012 at his mother’s death. The Christian element of the books became much more overt under Mike, with lovely stories illustrating the religious meaning of Christmas and Easter and referring often to Biblical passages. But though the earlier books are not explicitly Christian, a deeply Judeo-Christian moral framework was there throughout. There are numerous stories from the time of Stan and Jan’s editorship that directly refer to God, even if in a language that remains more oblique than that of the later Mike books.
In closing, a note that gives my heart a warm glow: I just showed my youngest all the images in this article, and she instantly knew the names of the books from which they were taken.
The tradition will be passed on!
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Though you will be able to tell immediately from what I have to say here that I’d have to substantially shift the angle to get any dissertation committee in a contemporary English department to consider it—e.g., I’d need to find a way to apply Lacan and Derrida, or better still Kendi and Coates to show how the Bears canon marginalizes the historically disenfranchised, or discursively shores up white supremacy and patriarchy, or constitutes a systematic effort to socialize the young into a naturalistic epistemology of nature that is harmful to the planet and inconsistent with what social construction theory tells us about “reality” (you always have to put that word in scare quotes, you see…), or some combination of all of these.