The Berenstain Bears and the Big Visit to Elon
Mike Berenstain is not “Brother Bear,” a character from the Berenstain Bears children’s book series created by his parents. As Berenstain likes to joke, having an older sibling makes him “Sister Bear.” It was that kind of humor that marked Berenstain’s visit this week to Elon University, where he told stories of his parents, Stan and Jan, while sharing with his audiences what the future holds for the furry family from Bear Country.
Berenstain, an author and illustrator who today works with his mother to produce new books, hosted a series of programs on Thursday, starting with a morning reading to Pleasant Grove Elementary School students. He then spoke to Elon students from several classes that gathered together in the Moseley Center and capped his March 31 visit with an afternoon lecture in LaRose Digital Theatre.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Berenstain Bears installment, The Big Honey Hunt, which launched an enterprise that today includes books, musicals, a television series, a Hollywood movie under consideration - even an iPhone app. Of the more than 300 titles published in the series, 120 remain in print.
The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers, The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist, The Berenstain Bears Go to Camp and The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby are just some of the titles that remain among the most popular, even decades after first hitting bookshelves.
“People always tells us that they like our books because they teach lessons,” Berenstain said. “I quibble with this. I think people actually like our books because they teach lessons well.”
Mike Berenstain has been working on the series for two decades, and the death of his father, Stan, in 2005, led him to take an even larger role with the books. He and his mother continue to write and illustrate several stories each year. Leo Berenstain, Mike’s older brother, handles the finances for their company.
Just like the original books, today’s stories often find inspiration from the activities of Mike Berenstain’s own children, including his youngest daughter, Emily, a sophomore sociology major at Elon.
The visit wasn’t all about the Bears. In his talk to students in the Moseley Center, Berenstain offered remarks on the book publishing industry – generally speaking, he said, not as much attention is paid by editors to children’s books anymore – and that the Bears are not meant to be a “social service” to help parents explain life lessons to their children.
Instead, Berenstain said, topics are chosen based on what he and his family think will sell. Is there a market for books that offer this assistance? Yes, but the commercial element comes first, which is why his parents, and now himself, tended to avoid topics such as death and divorce.
Berenstain said that often overlooked is his parents’ careers as cartoonists for magazines such as McCall’s and Good Housekeeping prior to their success writing about the Bears. Their first editor at Random House was none other than Theodor Seuss Geisel – better known as “Dr. Seuss.”
Mike Berenstain read letters from Geisel to his parents when he spoke to the Elon classes. “He was a tough editor,” Berestain said of Geisel. “He wanted things to be just a certain way. They learned a lot from him, but he also drove them nuts.”
For the record: Mike Berenstain’s favorite book in the series is The Berenstain Bears' Picnic, according to The Berenstain Bears' official website.
Berenstain's visit was organized by the School of Education at Elon University. Laura Williams, director of the Curriculum Resources Center, coordinated his schedule.