The Berenstain Bears Legacy Lives On Through Sons Mike and Leo

Feb. 27, 2012  Upon hearing of Berenstain Bears’ co-founder Jan Berenstain’s passing at 88 this past Friday, I’d like to send deepest condolences to the family, especially sons Mike (illustrator) and Leo (business) who continue to uphold the stories and standards of their parents’ gentle parables after 50 years and over 300 books of “kidlit” entertainment.

To honor Jan’s memory and salute Mike’s role in continuing the family franchise, I’m republishing this tribute piece, selecting Mike Berenstain as a “People Shaping Youth” honoree, interviewed in 2007. (after the jump)

When I chatted with Mike back then, he spoke of his father’s passing in 2005, and reiterated his commitment to working alongside his mother Jan creating storybooks with teaching moments that came to life.

Friday that chapter came to a close with Jan’s stroke, but as Mike recently stated, “‘Every day she was very productive…She was working on two books and had been doing illustrations until the day before she passed away.”

Here’s to a life well lived, and a legacy passed along to MANY generations. When I think of Berenstain Bears books I think of simplicity sans mass commercialization, weathered recycled bins of hand-me-down dog-eared versions of their books, waiting rooms and medical offices brightened by the bears storybooks scattered about, and slower, gentler, media times.

What are your favorite Berenstain Bears memories? Or are they still to come? Enjoy this interview with Mike, and the indelible bear paws that have left a mark on so many childhoods.

Presenting: People Shaping Youth Honoree Mike Berenstain

by Amy Jussel

bb-bro.jpg(Originally published here: 2007)

If Mike Berenstain of the Berenstain Bears were in a Hollywood pitch session to tell the true story of his family’s cartoon critter creations, it might go something like this:

“Once upon a time, before the lovable, shaggy-haired Berenstain Bears clan came to live down a sunny dirt road in Bear Country, their creators, Stan & Jan Berenstainwere starting out in their artistic careers, drawing witty cartoons and magazine illustrations on the joys and foibles of parenting.”

“CUT! Not sexy enough. Rewind. Gimme Some Romance.”

“Ok…Once upon a time two young art students met the first day of classes, leading to their fairytale union in love and life, as co-creators of perhaps the most popular author/illustrator series in publishing with over 260 million books sold.”

“Needs more drama. Gimme a hook. How ‘bout a reality angle? Violence. Guns…”

“Stan was drafted during WorldWarII to serve as a medical illustrator, diagramming procedures for doctors, since film and video weren’t widely available yet…and…”

“WHAT? omg! No film and video? That’s like doing CSI with illustrations! What about sex? Can you give me some sex?”

“Sex? Well, sure, they had me…and my older brother Leo, who’s actually the model for Brother Bear…He’s involved in the business side of the Berenstain books…and…”

“Wait. Wait. Two boys in a row? And you’re the youngest? That means YOU were the model for Sister Bear! Woohoo, now we’re getting somewhere…the whole pink ‘Bearbie’ thing, she’s all girl, but sometimes one of the guys; We can maybe go with a gender bender angle…”

Anyway…you get my point…Hollywood pitchmeisters that insist on dragging vapid celebrity worship of fame and sensationalized drek to the forefront of our industry are leaving the meaningful storytelling on the cutting room floor when autobiographical truths like this are pure magic…

Granted, they’ve been teased for some old-fashioned stereotypes from a role model standpoint, and they’ve taken some flak for their prolific number of titles as a formulaic marketing machine, but when a preteen wistfully picks up a Berenstain Bears book and says, “awww, I remember this one” and curls up on your lap in reverie, you know there’s a reason they’ve had serious staying power.

The Berenstain Bears are able to proudly mark their 45th year anniversary of soothing, snuggly virtues amidst a pop culture of jangling, rapid-fire media…

We salute Mike Berenstain, as our second honoree for People Shaping Youth.

bears-family-on-bench.jpgAn author/illustrator of about thirty books BEFORE even joining the bear clan, Mike Berenstain earned his own reputation in the ’70s before joining his folks in the ’80s creating new adventures alongside his parents, Stan and Jan.

He’s been producing consistently positive messages of ethics and values to the delight of multiple generations now well into his third decade with the rural country critters. Mike and Jan continue to prove that you can pull in readers with entertaining humor, common conundrums, and heart and soul, keeping the bears current without compromising quality or convictions.

He’s proudly carried on this inspirational family legacy and indelible brand into the digital era, and though his father Stan passed away in 2005, Mike and Jan continually freshen their storytelling and subject matter. In 2000, they even expanded the bear country family…

“Since when is there a “Honey Bear?” my daughter yelled from the other room, “sheesh, I’m out of the loop, I feel so old.” (That’s right hon, you’re over the hill at age 12…)

trw.jpgTo coax more tweens and teens to “go down memory lane” like this and enjoy being a child again, Shaping Youth is kicking off a Berenstain Bears Teen Read Week by asking older kids to read to younger ones. Pop into any library event, preschool, park, or sibling’s room for that matter, to simultaneously build reading literacy and teen mentoring values.

Seguing from the ALA’s Banned Book week, our celebration is about letting kids be kids, with laughter, humor, and this year’s TRW theme, “LOL” so it all fits together nicely. So teens? Slip into a beanbag chair and snuggle into simpler times…

Watch how fast teens’ inner child peeks through with a wee one to read to, or a ‘lift the flap’ book like the newly released Berenstain Bears Trim the Tree. It’ll melt your heart and remind you in a fingersnap that underneath even the most defiant, edgy-indie-teen bravado is a child, not an adult…(important stuff, parents, on multiple levels).

Teens can choose from tons of topics and issues to share with wee ones all over the board on the massive Berenstain bookshelf.

bb-tv.gifI use many in our own media literacy work at Shaping Youth, like: The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmes, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV. I’m particularly excited to check out their new one titled, “The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Commercials.”

Oughta be interesting. Commercials are everywhere from conveyor belts to tray tables these days, so I’m dying to see what the fuzzy lil’ bears have to say. (Mind you, Mike said they try not to get too trendy, so I’m sure commercials via iPhone, or mobile-social Twitter are out ;-)

Many a parent has snagged a Berenstain Bears book to tackle a tough topic and open a conversation, from sibling, peer, and family conundrums, to the stress of ‘first time’ anxieties and struggling with life predicaments.

When I interviewed Mike on the challenges of staying relevant amidst a cacophony of noise and clutter in changing times, he spoke to the fact that the Berenstain Bears’ essence has barely shifted at all over the years…

bb-dressup.gifIt’s really all the same childhood ‘stuff,’ despite new forms, variants, and the power of new distribution channels and media partners.

I guess that’s why tweens and teens still find relevance as much as some of the parents do…Swap out the issues, update the angst, and voilà , the bears are au courant and timely, bridging various ages and stages.

Without further ado, here’s my conversation with People Shaping Youth honoree Mike Berenstain on how to build a positive kids’ brand that endures:

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: How do you make a quiet “sunny dirt road in Bear country” resonate in an urban hip-hop MTV world of commercialism?

Mike Berenstain: We’ve always been about family life, covering ordinary experiences in humorous ways, and our characters have always been sort of old-fashioned coming from a rural environment, so we’re not too worried about keeping up with the latest technology and trends because we want our books to be universal and lasting…You may see a cellphone or computer in our more recent books, but it’s probably along the lines of an Apple2E. We try to keep it representative so the books aren’t obsolete.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: So no bear family podcasts, bear avatars or virtual worlds in the works?

Mike Berenstain: Nope, we try to keep it pretty simple. There’s the digital treehouse online, and our main site has activities where kids can play, but it’s all pretty straightforward.

(Editor’s note: Their official site has mazes, decoder puzzles, factoids, video clips, an interactive readalong and rhyming virtual tree tour, e-cards, coloring pages for kids and such, whereas the treehouse site houses more about the bear’s foundation, animation gallery of art cels, DVDs, guest appearances, new releases, etc.)

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: How have humor and core values changed over the decades in media with youth?

strong-thumbnail.jpgMike Berenstain: If you take a ‘then and now’ perspective, it’s a real paradox. In some ways, media and marketing is ‘anything goes,’ and in other ways, we’re going in a reverse direction. There’s now adult humor in kids movies, with a wink and a nod; highly sexualized humor or innuendo. On the other hand, in our new exhibit going up in 2008 at the Strong National Museum of Play, there was a mock cartoon-style Renaissance nude in a picture frame that caused a stir due to the fact that we were ‘exposing children’ so there’s a role reversal there.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: So are we going backwards to censorship and over-correction?

Mike Berenstain: I think humor is very touchy now. What may have been innocent and funny in the past is now pulled into today’s context…and that doesn’t always translate well. For example, in The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday, (one of our books which is over twenty years old now) there’s a fossil artifact of pop culture that mentions ‘spin the bottle.’ In today’s context, that just doesn’t take on remotely the same meaning, so there’s bound to be upset.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What about changes in values and ethics in media and marketing overall?

bb-junk-food.gifMike Berenstain: There used to be agreement as to what was important in society, and what role adults and children would play. Kids used to be portrayed as the mischievous troublemakers and now it’s adults behaving badly.

A meal out with kids now involves splat mats and toys spread out all over the place, a drive through with junk food and lots of noise and gear…Adult clothes are now marketed to kids…Those kinds of changes.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: How do you see licensed cartoon characters and ethics in the childhood obesity debate? There’s a new industry article out about the bounceback from reverb and resurgence of licensed characters to kids. Are The Berenstain Bears on any food products?

Mike Berenstain: Actually they are. We have a new product agreement with RW Knudsen to license use on their organic juices, “Sensible Sippers.” We’ve also just partnered with Prevent Child Abuse America to use the Berenstain Bears as part of their national rollout plans using pinwheels as a symbol of childhood.

All in all, we try to pick our licensing deals and partner orgs very selectively and personally…put it this way, they’ll never be marketed en masse like Shrek and Spongebob.

bb-commercials.jpgAmy Jussel, Shaping Youth: How do you feel about the Scholastic Book Fair school commercialization?

As a parent, I’m not alone in feeling Scholastic has diluted their brand trust by offering pricey gimmicks and premiums over content…games, posters, toy tie-ins, and the Bratz brand REALLY eroded and devalued the quality message for many of us who feel Bratz dolls have NO place in school at all.

(Editor’s note: “Disboards” forum, CCFC how-to re: commercial-free bookfairs)

Mike Berenstain: First, most of our Scholastic business comes from the direct order/beginners books on the book of the month sheets, and yes, Scholastic is an important distribution partner in children’s publishing. But what you’re seeing in school book fairs, grocery stores, and toy premiums everywhere is the media crossover from publishing to merchandising.

It’s happening in both print and broadcast…Media and marketing has made us all into “content providers” so books are competing with TV for limited access to kids, and it’s harder to command attention in a competitive environment. Publishers all have to think harder about a means of getting to the public…

bb-trimtree.jpgAmy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What about all the gimmicks over content?

Lockets and bracelets and stickers that come with the book, sometimes part of the story, sometimes not.

Have the Berenstain Bears tried any books with gimmicks? Are we going to see more product placement written into children’s literature, like the controversial “Cathys” book?

Mike Berenstain: Our new Trim the Tree book is a lift-the-flap…so that’s a gimmick I guess. We tried a scratch-n-sniff Papa’s pizza book at one point, but it was just too costly to produce. And we’ve teamed with concepts that had an organic fit, like the fictional Bear Scouts and Cub Club merit badge series, that kind of thing…or the soccer association for youth, because Brother Bear loves the game. Ultimately we stay true to the characters and storyline in fresh and entertaining ways.

In The Berenstain Bears’ Dollars and Sense we added a series of tear-out checks to simulate a checkbook, so that’s merchandising, but it’s also part of the storyline. And yes, we do have a partnership with Univest, to help kids learn the value of money and how to save it — but that’s about education, not product placement, their name is not in the book.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What about the stories themselves, do you try to address changing times on specific issues?

Mike Berenstain: We’ve done some internet safety and one on ‘learning about strangers’ tied in with the PCAA. (editorial note: this family’s recent blog gives a good example of media being used to help open these conversations and mentions the book directly)

We also have books about disabilities, diversity, gender equality and all kinds of positive behavioral cues… but we didn’t set out to establish any specific moral code or embed core values in the content.

We actually had no intention of a ‘values’ message or any one focal point, the Berenstain Bears are bits and pieces of our own life story. My parents started the series in 1962 as more of a “how to read” collection based on personal family experiences. It just shifted naturally toward “situations” from things that took place firsthand, like The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby.

The “First Time” books became best sellers, so naturally, my mom and dad veered in that direction to share those milestones with other families…first day of school, first trip to the dentist, moving, peer pressure, phobias, teasing, all the usual stresses kids go through. (Editor’s note: For more about how their storylines and process, see this archived Scholastic interview with Stan & Jan Berenstain)

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Maybe it’s me, but if you scan this full list of Berenstain Bears books it seems like there’s a sociological pattern…a snapshot of the pop culture zeitgeist.

From the year 2000 on, there’s a tension in some of the titles…I can’t help but make some behavioral observations about the ‘how-to/problem-solving’ tone…

Mike Berenstain: Can you give me some examples? Are you asking about ‘signs of the times’?

bb-chores.jpgAmy Jussel, Shaping Youth:

Yes…Specifically…After 2000, books like The Berenstain Bears Bedtime Battle, Report Card Trouble, Clean House, Trouble With Chores, No Guns Allowed, stretching the truth in The Excuse Note, Sister Bear cursing based on a video she wasn’t supposed to be watching in The Blooper, that kind of thing…

It begs the question, has parenting gotten harder?

How have values changed over the decades? Even your “Bear Essentials” guide is titled for “hard-pressed parents”…

Mike Berenstain: Hmn. Well, I’d say it’s true that certain concepts need reintroduced. Without playing the blame game, it seems chores once were a common family standard, now there’s a sense of entitlement and pushback.

Kids have their own money to spend, but it’s not necessarily earned. And parents see the nag factor of commercialism without sales resistance and kids get the gimmes relentlessly. There’s no question there are some media correlations coming into play with the topics we choose sometimes too…

bb-spelling.jpgAmy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Such as?

Mike Berenstain: The new Berenstain Bears and the Big Spelling Bee reflects the “stressed out student” syndrome, the pressures of kids’ worlds with pushy parents living vicariously, and the spelling films and primetime TV coverage that made the topic so big…

Then there’s the internet and the spellcheck issue…that’s a cultural shift right there.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Do you feel there’s a nature deficit disorder among media savvy kids?

Mike Berenstain: Again, nature is a topic that needs reintroduced, Brother Bear is big on bugs and creatures, so we’ve tried to build nature appreciation into his character, and education into some of the plotlines.

Some of our books like the Nature Guide or Big Book of Science and Nature, or Don’t Pollute Anymore, are topic specific, but the bigger picture is reintroducing the natural world, outdoors and the entire context of play.

bb-play.jpgAmy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Can you tell me more about your involvement with the Strong National Museum of Play?

Editor’s Note: Strong National Museum of Play is the only museum in the world devoted solely to the study of play as it illuminates American culture.

The museum houses the largest collection in the world of toys, dolls, and play-related objects and features “whimsical interactive exhibits” (e.g. Berenstain Bears in April 2008) the National Toy Hall of Fame®, and Upstate New York’s only live indoor butterfly garden.

Mike Berenstain: Right now they’re hosting my parent’s original drawings from the post-war baby boom era of the ’50s and ’60s when everyone moved to the suburbs and started having kids…There’s some really funny slice of life artwork that captures family life from that era, before TV, before the bears, back in their earlier artistic days, when magazines and newspapers were the literary entertainment.

In April 2008 it will be turned into a traveling exhibit nationally…a baby boomer archive. Kids create cartoons on light tables, there are puzzles and some interactive cartoon elements, and all sorts of retro memorabilia–lunchboxes, rockets, toys…should be fun.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: So it’s sort of a boomer nostalgia tour? Are you leading the trendy retro boom?


Mike Berenstain: There’s irony in the fact that we’re seeing a longing for healthier times, because that’s what we’ve always been about to begin with! So I guess there IS a nostalgia element by virtue of the fact we’ve been around so long…In some ways, what’s old is new again.

The tour is really just an extension of the exhibit’s success at the Strong National Museum of Play. In fact, at about the same time, they’ll be finished building a life-size 3-D interactive play exhibit with the scenes and structures from our books…

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: You mean kids will be able to physically climb and play in the treehouse, like a movie set?

Mike Berenstain: Yep. It’s part entertainment, part education…you should see it, it’s under construction right now. They can visit the Club House in the Woods, Main Street, learn in the Bear Country School, the works…

(Nostalgia Buffs & Vintage Magazine Collectors: Before we leave the vintage exhibit, a few footnotes: Stan Berenstain, Mike’s dad, sold his first cartoon to the Saturday Review of Literature while he was still in the Army on active duty in World War II. Once Stan was reunited with Jan, they ended up working together as gag cartoonists, so this exhibit going on tour covers lots of their witty artwork from that time period of around 1946-1962, w/over 86 Collier’s magazine covers and illustrations. There’s a nice history article on the magazines from this era here on this vintage magazine auction site. There’s also a media blog covering movies and profiles from the silents to the 1950s. Hope it comes on tour to the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum! (Bay area reader sidenote: Cartoon Art also has an exhibit of Edward Gorey’s Dracula and macabre cartoons through Jan. ’08; perfect for Halloween this month)

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: There’s been a lot written about your creative process, storyboarding, teaming with your mom, and how the actual illustrations come to life with line inking and India ink and watercolor and such…

Since kids are designing cartoons on the internet, and big on do-it-yourself comics, avatar art, and manga/anime communities (like Gaia online) do you see using internet tools and technology for the Berenstain Bears?

Along those lines, there’s also a new social media site called JacketFlap that’s a great resource for all those involved with the children’s book industry, are you familiar with it?

Mike Berenstain: No, I can’t say that I am familiar with them. Like I said, we keep it pretty simple…No big social networking or digital plans here. As for kids that are aspirational cartoonists, we have a Berenstain Bears Draw-It lesson to show kids how to create the bear family…that’s about the extent of it.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Finally, are there any topics that the bears haven’t touched upon that you’d LIKE to cover?


Mike Berenstain: I think the topics for The Berenstain Bears books will evolve with their audience, which right now is preschool kids, with strong loyalty to the characters among first and second graders. We take our time and let it percolate when there’s a topic that needs to be handled particularly well…

We’re just now covering one you’d think we would’ve done long ago, The new Berenstain Bears Lose A Friend book. We went back and forth on it many times, because as a humor series, it’s hard to take on a topic like this without being flippant or disrespectful. We finally arrived at this new storyline, involving a goldfish, and I hope our readers will be pleased.

The End.

Although we talked about so much more…from Title IX and sports equality for kids to Kate Hepburn, Adam’s Rib, and employment for women in WWII…all a keen reminder no generation invented any one “issue,” it’s all about opening conversations with the churn of media dialog, as a larger part of the global human experience.

If Henry Ward Beecher is correct in saying, “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures” then I’d love to meet the entire Berenstain Bears creative family someday, for you must be incredibly warm and nurturing human beings.

You should all be applauded for exemplifying positive media with purpose, and maintaining that quality for 45 years…

Congratulations on being our second People Shaping Youth honoree. It’s an honor to highlight your work.

BERENSTAIN BEARS PODCAST UPDATE:  Special thanks to the VJ podcast site for pinging us with this new podcast interview with Michael Berenstain discussing his childhood memories, his parents’ romance, and heartwarming personal stories. Need a jolt of positive media? Check it out! And stick around Vicky and Jen’s site too, with indie music, kids’ topics and family resources galore with their own blog hub too!

(This post originally ran in 2007, it’s interesting to see the media shifts in just 5 years time, n’est ce pas? –AJ)

Visual Credits: Lead photo of Jan Berenstain, via Mel Evans/AP


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