Stan and Jan Berenstain, Creators of The Berenstain Bears

19 March 2004

   Kids and parents are familiar with the Berenstain Bears, Mama in her dotted dress and cap and Papa in his plaid shirt, overalls and straw hat. Brother and Sister Bear provide the inspiration for stories that are packed with action and easy to read. While the Bear family is instantly recognizable, Stan and Jan Berenstain have kept back, busy with the making of wonderful art and magic in cartoons, greeting cards, stories and book series over the last sixty years. Let's sneak a peek through the window of their lives

    Both Stan and Jan were born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1923 but in different areas of town. Stanley was the first of two children of Rose and Harry Berenstain. Rose managed an Army and Navy store owned by Stan’s grandmother. Harry was employed by Sears Roebuck as part of a store-opening crew and was rarely at home until the Depression took his job. Jan was born Janice Marian to parents Alfred and Marian Grant. Marian was a trained stenographer. Alfred was in the Navy during WW1, then worked as a carpenter and studied architecture and engineering. Stanley and Janice were budding artists from the start, with agile minds and very handy with the crayons.

    Attending the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art in September 1941, Stanley and Janice met for the first time at a weekly drawing class. They were impressed by each other’s art skills and captivated by each other. They became fast friends, going to museums, theater and drawing outings together. Their blossoming romance was abruptly interrupted – Pearl Harbor was bombed that December and Stanley would soon be drafted into the military.

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    Called into service in 1942, Stanley left art school but did not leave art behind. Eventually, he became a medical artist at a maxillo-facial plastic surgery service at a military hospital in Indiana. He drew detailed charts outlining the procedures for innovative surgical repairs to soldier’s wounds. Stanley “painted before-and-after moulages (face masks) of representative cases.” He also “painted ‘glass’ eyes, which weren’t glass but acrylic, and made and painted prosthetic ears and noses, which were made of soft acrylic.” *(1) Stanley was away from home for three years but kept in constant touch with Janice by regular letters.

    As the war raged on, Janice took time off school to become one of the many women known as “Rosie the Riveter”. It was a harsh job at a factory producing wing sections for the PBY Flying Boat used in the Pacific. Jan worked 12-hour days, six days a week, swinging from two weeks on days then two weeks on nights. The work was difficult, with pairs of women using “a small jackhammer shaped like a handgun, with a long hose coming out of the handle connected to a source of compressed air beneath the factory floor” and an iron bar, “shaped to fit different rivet locations.” One woman would be on the outside, the other on the inside of the cramped wing, attaching the frozen rivets and zinc chromate paste. (The rivets were kept frozen until driven through the aluminum and the paste was applied to make them leak-proof.) They wore kid gloves to protect their hands from freezing.

    Eight months later, the huge wings were finished and the women of that factory moved on to other jobs. Janice returned to classes at art school, becoming a teaching assistant and taking a job painting gift items for Artgift.

    Discharged on April 1, 1946, Stanley returned home and immediately married his sweetheart Janice on April 13th. They made their home in an apartment over an Army and Navy store owned by Stanley’s father. While in the army, Stanley had sold his first cartoons in 1945 to The Saturday Review of Literature for the amazing amount of $35 each. Now on their own and certain this was the work that would provide for their future, Stanley and Janice began creating and marketing their cartoons to Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, Farm Journal and others. They received rejection after rejection, and not one sale. They did not know what was wrong. After a year of such failure, Stanley made an appointment to visit the cartoon editor of the Saturday Evening Post. The editor pointed them in a different direction, away from their jokes about cultural things and toward jokes about home life, about family. Catching on quick, the Berenstains drew new cartoons centred on “kids stealing cookies out of the cookie jar, taking the dog to the vet, and burnt lamb chops.” The cartoons were an instant success, selling 154 pieces the next year, with a record of six cartoons in one issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

    Before long, Janice and Stanley were busy with a number of projects, from full-page cartoons of children being children at parks and events for Collier’s to greeting cards for Hallmark, an on-going series of cartoon pages for McCalls Magazine (running from 1956 to 1990) and books of cartoons about family life, aimed at adult readers. In the middle of this demanding schedule, their sons were born. To their parents delight, Leo arrived in 1948 and Michael in 1951. The idea of creating a book about a family of bears was niggling in back corners of the Berenstains’ minds.

    Aided by their own publisher, Stanley and Janice took their plans to Macmillan, known as the leading publisher of books at the time. They met with the head of the children’s division with great hopes. The woman was less than open to their ideas. “…you are cartoonists; your drawings are cartoons,” she said. Stanley and Janice mentioned that they notice children like cartoons, but the woman could not be swayed, noting “children like many things that aren’t good for them….”

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    The Berenstains were not a pair to give up. Through their new agent and Phyllis Cerf, children’s publisher of  Beginner Books ® at Random House, they connected with Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. They found Ted (Theodor) to be much like The Cat in his book, The Cat in the Hat, “charming, courtly, congenial, and delightful to be with; also like the Cat he could be demanding, dismissive, and downright difficult.” After months of discussions, rewrites, revisions and sometimes even sticking to their guns against the great Dr. Seuss, The Big Honey Hunt became the Berenstains’ first Beginner Book® featuring the bear family, published in April 1962.

    The Bike Lesson became the second book in the series, this time the bears were dubbed “The Berenstain Bears” on the cover, along with the authors’ names shortened to Stan and Jan Berenstain, courtesy of Ted. “It would never have occurred to us to name the bears after ourselves,” said Stan. “ After all, we were the Berenstains and our bears were the Bears.” The changes made branding and marketing easy.

    Dozens of books have followed in several different series for young and older – more Beginner Books ®, First Time Books ®, board books, Merit Badge Mysteries, Step into Reading Books, Bright and Early Books and so many more. Sons Leo and Michael are part of the business, writing and illustrating books in the Big Chapter Books series and others. The total of books produced by the Berenstain family is nearing 300 titles and total books sold in the hundreds of millions. The adventures of The Berenstain Bears now also appear in videos and on television, including PBS and Treehouse TV in Canada.

    The Berenstain Bears have a colossal following, as evidenced by the month-long McDonald’s Happy Meal promotion just a few years ago. The restaurant chain sold 35 million Berenstain Bears figurines and ran out early of a particular character. They were forced to send a 747 airplane to China to pick up 4 million more Sister Bears to keep up with customer demand. Now in their early 80s, Stan and Jan Berenstain live about 30 miles north of Philadelphia in Bucks County. They are the proud grandparents of four grandchildren. Their grandchildren continue to provide fresh ideas for books, with about 10 new Berenstain Bears books appearing each year. Continuing as a team effort, “Both Stan and Jan think up story ideas. Whoever thinks of a story first writes down all of the text. Then Stan organizes the words and pictures on layout paper. Jan usually does the pencil drawings and Stan applies the ink.” *(2)

    The Berenstains describe their flourishing creative careers in a humble manner. “What we’re about is number two pencil, yellow legal pads, nib pens, watercolors, Winsor Newton brushes, series 400 two-ply Bristol board, and a family of bears who live down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country.”

    Stan and Jan have lives brimming with inventiveness, colourful imaginations and the satisfaction of bringing the joy of reading to generations of families and millions of happy kids. A round of applause for the creators!

    Most of the information for this article was gleaned from:
*(1) Down a Sunny Dirt Road, An Autobiography by Stan and Jan Berenstain,
© 2002 Berenstain Enterprises, Inc., published by Random House.
This book is filled with wonderful photos of Stan and Jan from the time they were youngsters to the present. Also included are examples of their work and it's progression. A fascinating read for Berenstain fans.

A teacher resource file from the ILSMC
*(2) Sorry - the original James Madison University Link is broken. Try this link submitted by Crystal T. to satisfy the itch for resources on the Berenstains:
http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Classic+Children%27s+Literature+Authors+the+Berenstains-a01074109654

The Berenstain Bears Home Page with lots of activities and fun:
http://www.berenstainbears.com/

 

© Susanna McLeod 2004
TheCartoonists.ca  
     
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)