Jan Berenstain (1923 - 2012)

I'm sorry to learn of the passing of Jan Berenstain, who along with her late husband Stan were the Berenstains behind The Berenstain Bears. The Berenstain Bears were a big part of my daughters' reading when they were growing up, with me reading the stories to them when they were pre-schoolers then having them endlessly pore over the books when they learned to read.

Proteges of Dr. Suess, their stories conveyed an "old-timey" flavor reflecting their own roots as part of the Depression / WWII generation.  While some look askance at the Berenstain Bears for not being progressive enough, it's fair to think of them as tales crafted by loving grandparents; maybe a bit old fashioned in taste and outlook, but always entertaining and always with a golden nugget of truth at the core.

But the Berenstain Bears are just half of the reason I love their work so much.  The flipside to the Bears -- and as much a part of who they were as part of the WWII generation -- was their post-war / 1960s era cartoons and books.

I first stumbled across the Berenstains' scalpel-sharp wit & insight during the summer months when I'd visit my grandmother and aunt in the late 50s / early 60s.

Nona had a subscription to McCall's magazine, and at that time McCall's ran a two column cartoon feature from the Berenstains called "It's All In The Family".[1]

"It's All In The Family" was an eye-opener for young Buzzy-boy.  I had seen lots of comic books and TV shows about families, but there was always something a little too perfect, a little too ideal about them.

The Berenstains' family in McCall's competed for bathroom time.  The Berenstains' family in McCall's had kitchen disasters.  The Berenstains' family in McCall's had pets that made messes.  The Berenstains' family in McCall's has a dad who walked around in his underwear on Saturday mornings and a mom who wore a slip around the house.  The Berenstains' family in McCall's had kids who got sick and didn't make it to the toilet on time.

The Berenstains' family in McCall's, in other words, was just like my family.

Like I said, quite an eye-opener.[2]

By the time I was in grade school I was already reading at a 6th grade level.  When my parents would go shopping I'd make a bee-line to the book racks of whatever store we were in.[3] Once my parents realized I wasn't going to wander away from that spot, they tended to turn me loose so they could concentrate on keeping my two younger brothers in line.

I was delighted to discover the Berenstains not only did "It's All In The Family" but had also written and illustrated over a dozen books -- "illustrated essays" as they referred to 'em, tho it's safe to call 'em proto-graphic novels -- on parenting and children and child care and adolescence and growing up and office politics and =gulp!= sex.

Eye-openers indeed!

Because while most people today think of the Berenstains' in the image of the kindly grandparents described above, they were also part of the 1950s and they sure weren't blind to what was going on in the 1960s.

And while I lost track of their newer works by the time I was in high school (love to find some copies now), they did quite a bit to educate me in the ways of the world, in the ways adults thought and behaved, in the way parents related to children, and in the way men and women related to one another.

They did it with humor, they did it with style, but I don't think they ever hit a false note.  If they had I would have probably sensed it and never looked at another one of their books again.

So it's unfair to judge The Berenstain Bears too harshly.

Jan and Stan knew full well what they were doing.  They had been through it all, had seen it all, but also knew how to dish it out in doses that wouldn't be overwhelming to younger readers.

They were great children's book illustrators / writers, they were great cartoonists, but reading their lifetime of work convinces me they were great people.




[1]  Not to be confused with the TV show.

[2]  Mike Lynch offers a small sample here.

[3]  In the 1950s & 60s every supermarket, drug store, dime store, department store, bus stop, soda shop, and more than a few gas stations and restaurants had book and magazine racks to varying degrees.


Thinkage [updated]

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