The passing of Jan Berenstain is a great loss to the kidlit community. The hundreds of books she and her busband Stan wrote are a tribute to their wonderful relationship and their great core values which they passed along humorously and effortlessly in their creation of the Berenstain Bears.
BY PAUL VITELLO
Published: February 27, 2012
Jan Berenstain, who with her husband wrote and illustrated the Berenstain Bears books, gentle best-sellers that enlightened preschoolers for half a century with simple lessons about kindness and tidiness, and reasons not to be afraid of the doctor, died on Friday in Solebury, Pa. She was 88.
Dan Loh/Associated Press
The Berenstain Bears series sought to teach children about issues ranging from dentist visits to money worries.
Her death was confirmed by her publisher, HarperCollins.
With her husband, Stan, who died in 2005, Ms. Berenstain wrote more than 300 books, most of them offering moral lessons through the lives of a tidy nuclear family of plainspoken bears known as Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Brother Bear and Sister Bear.
Books featuring the Berenstain Bears (the authors toyed with penguins at first, but decided bears were more like humans) sold more than 200 million copies. The family also appeared in an animated television series and more than 20 television movies.
“Family values is what we’re all about,” Jan Berenstain told an interviewer last year.
More contemporary and quasi-political issues had arisen in recent years, though, including bullying, the dangers of online dating, and children bringing guns to school.
In a 1994 book, “New Neighbors,” the Berenstain Bears confronted racism in their very midst: Papa Bear, acting standoffishly toward the new neighbors, the Asian-looking Panda family, admitted to feelings of prejudice and learned the error of his ways. But by most accounts the books owed their popularity to their light humor and rock-solid simplicity. “Taking care of teeth is what bears want to do,” says Sister Bear in a typical Berenstain book finale. “They brush them and floss them, and visit the dentist, too.”
The Berenstains credited their first editor at Random House, Theodor Geisel, who wrote books himself under the name “Dr. Seuss,” with helping them achieve their trademark simplicity in language and illustrations. That style made their books popular as reading primers, by helping toddlers see connections between stories and words on a page.
“He wanted very simple, schematic illustrations with nothing in the background,” Mr. Berenstain told The Chicago Tribune. “Because the purpose of the books was to help kids tie the pictures in with the words.”
Jan Grant was born in Philadelphia on July 26, 1923, the daughter of Alfred and Marian Grant. She met Stanley Berenstain on their first day of classes in 1941 at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. They were both 18.
During World War II, while her future husband served as a medical illustrator in an Army hospital, she worked as a draftswoman in the Army Corps of Engineers and as an aircraft riveter. The couple married in 1946.
Ms. Berenstain is survived by their two sons, Leo and Michael, an illustrator who became a collaborator in the family’s Berenstain Bears enterprise, and by four grandchildren.
In an interview with Scholastic, the children’s magazine, Ms. Berenstain said she and her husband were always being asked why they had decided on bears rather than some other animal. Their standard answer was that “they stand on two legs, their mothers are very good mothers, and so on,” she said.
“One student asked why we didn’t use a fish,” she said, recounting a visit to a classroom. “And our answer was that they aren’t enough like people.”
Why not monkeys, then, asked another student.
“Because they are too much like people,” she replied.