Stan and Jan Berenstain introduced their first Berenstain Bear book in 1962. Mike Berenstain grew up watching his parents work together to draw and write about this lovable bear family. Eventually he started drawing and writing about them, too, and today, more than 200 books later, he continues to create the delightful Berenstain Bear adventures.
Explain how The Berenstain Bears started and the popularity they’ve achieved.
Mike Berenstain: My parents, Stan and Jan, started as magazine cartoonists when they married in 1946 creating humor about family life for such publications as McCall’s and Good Housekeeping.
When they became parents, they became interested in the children’s book my brother and myself were enjoying—especially those of Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel). With the great success of Geisel’s The Cat in the Hat in the late 1950s, they learned that he had become editor and publisher of a new line from Random House—Beginner Books—and that he was working with well-known cartoonists in developing the series.
They felt this would be a good opportunity for them to break into the world of children’s books. So they submitted a concept for a book about a family of bears. Geisel liked it and worked with them for about a year to bring it to publication as The Big Honey Hunt. This was followed up by The Bike Lesson. On its cover Geisel made the announcement, “Another adventure of the Berenstain Bears.” This was the origin of the characters’ name.
For their first decade, The Berenstain Bears books were in the tradition of Dr. Seuss books—funny, zany, early reading stories. In the mid 1970s, the first stories in what might be called the family life category began to appear—such titles as The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby (in which Sister Bears was introduced) and The Berenstain Bears Go to School. This kind of story achieved greater and greater popularity over the years and has come to be the subject matter with which the characters are strongly identified.
I joined with my parents as author and illustrator in the late 1980s. In 2005, we decided to explore creating a new series, Living Lights, with specifically spiritual content. My father passed away that year but the series was launched in 2008. My mother and I created them together until her passing in 2012 and I have continued on with both Zondervan’s Living Lights books and our more secular-themed stories with HarperCollins Publishers.
Why do you think parents and children appreciate your characters so much?
Mike Berenstain: First and foremost, the books are funny and entertaining—my parents and I always put great emphasis on telling stories that appeal to a child’s sense of humor.
Second, the stories are about a family. Families are where children live. Almost everything they experience is in the context of family life.
Third, the books are useful teaching tools—sometimes they deal with factual information, sometimes moral and life-knowledge information and, sometimes, spiritual guidance.
I sometimes find that my family’s emphasis on stories, characters, and art that appeals directly to children rather than over their heads to adults is not fully appreciated by parents who may have more narrowly adult concerns and agendas. For instance, parents sometimes object to the amount of humor introduced into stories that are designed to teach moral or spiritual lessons. They seem to think that simple grim lecturing of children is the best way to achieve such goals. If this were true, The Berenstain Bears series would not have been successful since it is by the combination of teaching with entertainment that they have achieved their appeal.
At first the books’ storylines concerned topics of general interest. Now they include spiritual themes. Describe the spiritual atmosphere in your home as you grew up and the thinking that prompted the decision to include those themes in the books.
Mike Berenstain: My father was from a secular Jewish family and my mother from a nominally Christian (Episcopalian) one. They were not religious as adults. They did, however, believe in educating their children about the Bible. They viewed this as an essential part of any education. So, we had family Bible readings every Sunday.
As a young adult, I began to read widely in history, philosophy, and religion—including the Bible. I began to feel that a purely secular view of life was incomplete and that the universe was a fundamentally spiritual place. Later, as a parent myself, I was influenced by my children’s education in Quaker schools in the Philadelphia area. I experienced a spiritual awakening and became a Christian, was baptized, and joined a church. My interest in creating spiritually-themed books flowed from that. My parents were supportive of this since they realized that a large portion of the audience for The Berenstain Bears books were families who were seeking support for their values and family life.
Are your fans surprised to learn of your spiritually-themed books?
Mike Berenstain: Very much so—most favorably but, some, quite negatively. The Living Lights books have been enormously successful and have, in fact, reinvigorated the popularity of the non-spiritually-themed Berenstain Bears books, as well.
How does the Bible influence your drawing, whether or not a book is in the Living Lights series?
Mike Berenstain: I cannot say the Bible has influenced my drawing directly. But I and my parents always worked in an illustration style which uses the visual vocabulary originally developed in Western art from the late Middle Ages through the 18th century primarily to represent biblical imagery. Any illustrator working with this vocabulary of composition, perspective, foreshortening, naturalistic drawing, etc. is indebted to that tradition of religious art.
How are lessons from the Bible reflected in your books?
Mike Berenstain: My intention is to take a subject that children will experience in every day family life—for instance, Thanksgiving Day—and see what the Bible has to say about the subject. Of course, the Bible has a great deal to say about something like thankfulness and I incorporate that message into the story.
What messages do your books about Easter convey?
Mike Berenstain: The celebration of Easter in contemporary America is a complex subject. Christians are observing the death and resurrection of Jesus at the same time that many Christians and non-Christians, alike, are celebrating something quite different—the return of spring as represented by such popular images as the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs. This is further complicated by the ancient Christian tradition of drawing symbolic analogies between Christ’s return to life and the rebirth of life in the spring. It can be pretty confusing for kids!
I view my job as sorting this all out for them—explaining that Easter is really about Jesus, not all that springtime stuff, and, though some Christians disapprove of the springtime imagery entirely, many other Christians think it’s okay to participate in Easter egg hunts, etc., as long as you keep in mind that it’s just a side show, not the main event which is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
What do you hope you’re achieving with the readers of your books?
Mike Berenstain: It’s my goal to give a little support to Christian families in raising their children. In our popular culture we’re constantly bombarded with a vast barrage of ideas and imagery which make it challenging to remain true to Christian teachings. The Berenstain Bears Living Lights Books are just one small tool that may be used in the task of strengthening Christian families.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Mike Berenstain: I am an enthusiastic user—especially of the concordance. Creating the Living Lights Books requires a considerable amount of biblical research. The Bible Gateway concordance is much easier to use and more precise than others which are available.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Mike Berenstain: Just that I very much appreciate the enthusiastic response from fans of The Berenstain Bears to the Living Lights series. They have made it a success and, with God’s blessings, have enabled me to create books which are spiritually fulfilling to both myself and, hopefully, many others around the world.
Bio: Mike Berenstain lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he continues to write and illustrate wonderful new adventures for Mama, Papa, Brother, Sister, and Honey Bear.