The Berenstain Bears’ 60th Anniversary

This month marks the 60th birthday of the first Bear book from Stan & Jan Berenstain, The Big Honey Hunt! Since 1962 Stan, Jan, and later Mike Berenstain would go on to publish over 500 books about the Bear family, translated into 20 different languages, with over 350 million books sold to date. The Berenstain Bears have not only graced the pages of storybooks, chapter books, and board books, but over the past 60 years, they have also been found on bed sheets, clothing, shoes, puppets, TV screens, and even on the pages of People Magazine alongside their creators Stan & Jan.

Stan & Jan as Papa & Mama Bear in a 1979 Issue of People Magazine

This month as we celebrate the book-versary of The Big Honey Hunt, you can learn how the very first book came to be in our previous blog post from our 55th anniversary. We also want to honor the legacy of Sterling Lord, who passed away on September 2 at age 102. Lord was the Berenstain’s longtime literary agent who helped connect Stan & Jan to Bennett Cerf & Ted Geisel (Dr. Suess). These connections helped bring The Big Honey Hunt to life. Sterling worked with Stan & Jan Berenstain for the rest of their careers, and he launched not only the Berenstain Bears but also the career of Jack Kerouac. Below we have included a message from Mike Berenstain about Sterling’s impact and an excerpt from Stan & Jan’s Autobiography Down A Sunny Dirt Road.

Closing page Illustration from The Big Honey Hunt

My family’s literary agent of sixty years, Sterling Lord, passed away at the age of 102 . Sterling sold the very first Berenstain Bears book, The Big Honey Hunt, to Ted (Dr. Seuss) Geisel at Random House in 1961. I knew Sterling from childhood on through my own professional working life. He was a charming and distinguished gentleman of publishing. My parents wrote about their introduction to Sterling in their autobiography, Down a Sunny Dirt Road:

Sterling Lord

“It took us about two months to write and illustrate the manuscript of our children’s book. During that period, two things happened that governed the fate of both the manuscript and its authors. First, a group of editors with whom we were working decided we needed an agent. Their reason: too many legal questions were arising in the course of our helter-skelter cartooning/writing career. Did the ‘next book’ clause in our contract with Macmillan, our hardbook publisher, cover original paperbacks? Did we own the rights to our McCall’s cartoons or did McCall’s? Was the ‘greeting books’ project we were working on with Bantam in conflict with our Hallmark arrangement?

While the idea of giving up 10 percent of our earnings to our agent wasn’t anathema, it was worrisome to a couple of penny-counting overgrown depression-era kids. However, given the increasingly complicated job of negotiating contracts, the idea was beginning to sound attractive. But we didn’t know anything about agents. How would we find one? We asked our various editors – Al Hart at Macmillan, Arlene Donovan and Marc Jaffe at Dell, and Knox Burger at Fawcett – for suggestions They each gave us a list of three or four agents. The names meant nothing to us. But there was the odd circumstance that one name appeared on all of the lists.

‘Who is Sterling Lord? How come he is on all of the lists?’ we asked Darlene Donovan (who went on to become a leading movie producer, most notably, perhaps, of Places of the Heart, which won two Academy Awards). 

‘Well, it sort of makes sense,’ said Arlene. ‘What are you two? Are you cartoonists who write or are you writers who cartoon? You’re neither fish nor fowl. And Sterling is…well, flexible.’

‘Flexible how?’ we asked. 

‘He’s open to trying new things. Right now, for instance, he’s booking Jack Kerouac into coffeehouses for poetry readings.’ 

‘Oh,’ we said. 

‘Is there anything you’d like me to do for starters?’ asked Sterling at our first meeting when we told him about our grand plan for a children’s book about a family of bears, he said, ‘Fine. I’ll give Phyllis a call.’

‘Who’s Phyllis?’ we asked.

‘Phyllis is Bennett’s wife,’ he explained to the two hicks from Philadelphia. ‘She’s a publisher at Beginner Books.’ We did know that Bennett Cerf was chairman and co-founder of Random House. We watched him guess occupations every Sunday night as a panelist on What’s My Line. We sent Sterling the Bear manuscript. A couple days later he called and said he’d had a nice lunch with Phyllis. She loved our work in McCall’s and was sending a contract over by messenger. Wow! Woosh! So that’s how it was done! You got yourself an agent who was on a first-name, let’s have brunch basis with Phyllis Cerf and just like that, abracadabra, presto change-o, a contract was sent over via messenger.”

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