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Lenten Conversations: Mike Berenstain of “Bear” Book Fame

March 5, 2017
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Mike Berenstain signs a copy of one of his books in 2011. (Melodie Davis photo)

Lenten Conversations: Mike Berenstain of “Bear” Book Fame

Another Way Column for week of March 3, 2017

Editor’s note: Second in a six-week Lenten series of interviews Melodie Davis conducted with influential Christians over several years.

I was surprised when I learned that Mike Berenstain was to be commencement speaker at my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University in 2011. But his son was graduating so I was pleased when Mike took time out of a very busy weekend for an interview for our little radio program, Shaping Families. I had to think how the stories and artwork he and his parents created were quite significant in shaping my own little family!

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Berenstain Bear books were an almost nightly ritual at our house for a number of years. I still have 19 of the lovable books which teach so many good values, awaiting the years when my own grandsons will enjoy them. Both of the older Berenstains, Stan and Jan, who wrote and illustrated the books, are now deceased (Mike’s father in 2005 and mother in 2012). Mike counts it a privilege to have worked with them after the books spun off into TV shows and other products. He said his parents could barely keep up with the demands on their time in the late 80s. They never pushed Mike into the “family business” but he chose to study illustration in art school, and briefly worked in design for Random House. There he learned the ropes of publishing children’s books.

I loved that the Berenstains chose bears for their family of characters not because of the similarity to their last name, but for the simple reason that “bears were easy to draw.” As a kid, Mike was amused when fans would assume the Berenstain bears somehow represented Stan and Jan’s own family. People would say to Mike, “Well, are you Brother Bear?”  Mike told me, “I always said, well, no, I have an older brother. So I must be Sister Bear.” Mike said his own kids took bear comparisons mostly in stride, enjoying the attention their grandparents received as the famous illustrator/authors.

I was interested in how Mike came to launch a separate line of Berenstain Bear books which are more directly religious. His father was culturally of Jewish background and his mother raised Episcopalian. Mike explained that “they taught us ethics from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but they dealt with their mixed marriage by really not teaching us religion.” But as an adult, Mike became a Christian and later in publishing, he wanted to express his own faith and launched “Living Lights” through Zondervan publishers.

Mike recalled the Berenstains had received an immense amount of feedback from people over the years saying that they would like books with a more overt faith message. “A huge proportion of our audience—our most dedicated, faithful audience —were people of very traditional backgrounds,” Mike pointed out.

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The Davis family collection of Berenstain Bear books.

There are about 12 original classic Berenstain Bear books that have been perennial best sellers. “But of the more recent ones published since then, the Living Lights faith books are the most popular,” Mike commented.

It was encouraging to hear that even though he wasn’t taught specific Christian faith stories as a child, his work has now been helpful for parents in raising their children to love God and follow Christ’s basic teachings. Lent and Easter traditions and activities can be special times with your children to bring attention to Christian faith and stories from the Bible.

This author added, “It’s very important that [in teaching good values] you try to give kids books that will give them a story which is attractive, entertaining, and interesting. It’s much less effective to give a kid a lecture.” Of course!

Mike is my age (born the same month in 1951) and if he is able to continue coming up with great story lines and ideas as long as his parents did (well into their 80s), he won’t be retiring anytime soon. His mother always quipped when she was asked if she was going to retire, “I think I’ll retire and take up painting!”

When I interviewed Mike, his mother was still living. He gave her great credit as she continued to paint. He said his mother would always be a “much a better illustrator because she had so much more experience.”

Mike’s faith story brings me to several verses for your Lenten reflection from the poetry of Isaiah 46:4 and 9-10. The verses concern the time when the children of Israel were in captivity in Babylon. “I will still be carrying you when you are old. Your hair will turn gray, and I will still carry you. I made you, and I will carry you to safety. … I am God, and there is no other; …  there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.” We can take comfort that no matter what comes in the world, in our families, or with our aging bodies, God is there.

***

These Lenten Conversations are available as free small PDF booklet by clicking here: Lenten Conversations PDF. Or, send your name, address, and two U.S. postage stamps and I’ll mail a copy. Send to anotherwaymedia@yahoo.com or Another Way Media, Box 363, Singers Glen, Va. 22850.

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What is or was you or your child’s favorite Berenstain Bear book? Or… maybe not a fan?? Feel free to comment either way!

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My husband and I recently spent almost a week (hence this late posting of Another Way column) at the home of two of our grandsons, helping with childcare during an especially busy time for their parents. We look forward to the time when the grandsons can come for part or all of a week for Grandkid Kamp at our house! 

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I’d love to hear your experiences with grandchildren or as a grandchild at your own grandma/grandpa’s house! 

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6 Comments
  1. The Berenstain Bears were part of the Beaman family’s reading; I couldn’t pick a favorite. It strikes me odd/curious that bears considered dangerous in real life have a reputation for being cuddly on paper.

    Thank you for including Mike’s path of faith. I assumed he was Jewish but did not know about his Christian faith later in life. I’ll add to your Isaiah quotation another verse about aging: Psalm 92:14 They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing (other versions say “green and fresh.” Great post, Melodie!

    • This is another generational tie we share! I don’t know that I could actually pick a favorite either. Glad I added some new information on Mike! He also gave me some publishing advice which I found handy, though disappointing at the time. He said you have to be careful with titles which might make a family feel “less than” or like they’re doing something wrong. That the spin needs to be positive and uplifting, which makes sense. I had tossed him an idea from my Whatever Happened to Dinner book, thinking it could possibly be an issue they would want to take off from, but he felt it was too negative of premise: that parents wouldn’t buy it for themselves or for others thinking it was preaching. He may have been right. Something to mull!

      Thanks for the added verse–absolutely one of my favorites on aging and obviously you’ve seen it in your many relatives too.

  2. Lovely post, Melodie. I didn’t realize all of this about the family behind the well-loved series. I’m curating for MennoNerds tonight, and will add this to the Twitter feed for Tuesday, March 7.

  3. Athanasia permalink

    My library carries all the newer books but not the older ones. Not so much that the older ones are not Christian themed but that they have a harsher tone. There is always a lot of yelling and lost tempers, most often by Papa Bear. So no, I chose not to have them at home either.

    Mercer Mayer now has Little Critter books through Zondervan. They are very sweet. Another very good series is the My First Little House Books based off the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. By the way, this is the 150th anniversary of her birth in 2017.

    It was interesting reading the story of Mike Berenstain and I would like to use that info in an upcoming library newsletter, if you don’t mind.

    • Your naming the harsher tone of the earlier books is interesting–roles were somewhat stereotypical I guess and sometimes Papa Bear did lose his temper. I’m not acquainted with Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter’s books so thanks for mentioning those and the My First Little House books. I wonder if my grandsons would like those.

      Certainly, you can use the info on Mike Berenstain in your newsletter! Great. I hope you’ll include a mention of where you found it. 🙂 Thanks, Athanasia.

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