During 2012, our blog has reflected on the Berenstain Bears and their creators Jan, Stan, and Mike Berenstain as they marked their 50th Anniversary. It has been fun to look back through all those years of art files and reminisce about the many, many adventures the Berenstain Bears have had down a sunny dirt road in Bear Country. It was also a very difficult year, as we lost our dear Jan in February.
In reviewing the files, the very first Berenstain Bear sketch was found, as well as the art work that led up to the first Berenstain Bears’ book – The Big Honey Hunt. This title was published in 1962 as part of Random House’s Beginner Books series with editor Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss).
Finding the lost manuscript for what was originally written to be the second book in this series – Nothing Ever Happens at the South Pole – and seeing it published during the 50th year was very special for Jan. She took great delight in bringing the early sketches from the manuscript to life.
The early readers were followed by the First Time Reader series, the first of which was The Berenstain Bears and the New Baby, published in 1974.
It was interesting to discover that many children, now-grown-up from the 1980s had no idea our sweet little Honey was born in The Berenstain Bears and Baby Makes Five in 2000.
To celebrate our very special anniversary, HarperCollins Children’s Books and Random House Children’s Books worked with Jan and Mike to document the creation of the Berenstain Bears. These phenomenal interviews were filmed just 3 weeks before Jan’s death. If you haven’t had time to watch the five short video interviews, you can find them on the video link on the Berenstain-ology tab of the Parents Den on our website.
Many of this year’s blogs were based on Jan and Stan’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: An Autobiography, written in 2002. While our blog will certainly continue, as we come to the final blog of our 50th year, we thought it only fitting to end with words from Stan and Jan:
A question we are often asked arises from the perception that at this point in our lives, we could easily retire. The comment usually runs along the following lines: “I know what I would do if I were in your position. I’d retire and travel.” The answer to that question is twofold. Why in the world would we retire? We thrive on what we do and we’re going to keep on doing it, we say (only partially tongue in cheek), until we get it wrong. As for travel–we do travel. Extensively. We go to a lovely, salubrious place where honeybees hum, where rainbow trout march rainbow skies, where the rivers run clean and the air is sweet, where there’s beauty around every bend in the sunny dirt road. It’s a wonderful place. It’s called Bear Country. We go there every day.
Our blog this year has reflected on the Berenstain Bears and their creators Jan, Stan, and Mike Berenstain as they mark their 50th Anniversary.
In celebration of our anniversary, HarperCollins Children’s Books and Random House Children’s Books worked with Jan and Mike to document the creation of the Berenstain Bears. Filmed just 3 weeks before her death in February 2012, Jan never saw the completion of the five videos. Now, for the first time ever, Random House and HarperCollins have released excerpts from this phenomenal interview for all to see.
We are very grateful to Harper Collins and Random House for these wonderful and very timely videos of our beloved Jan Berenstain.
The interviews are available on the Berenstain-ology tab of the Parents Den on our website:
Adapted and excerpted from Mike Berenstain’s Child’s Play: Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain, published by Abrams in 2008.
The explosive popularity of television rang the death knell of the general interest weekly magazine. Folks were not content to sit around reading when they could partake of the wild hilarity of Uncle Milty or Sid Caesar on the dimly luminous tube. The Saturday Evening Post survived in truncated form by going from weekly to monthly publication. But Collier’s went under at the end of 1956.
Surprisingly, Stan and Jan survived this catastrophic loss of their principle source of income quite nimbly. One area of magazine publishing that continued to thrive in the new multimedia era was the venerable monthly woman’s magazine. Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and McCall’s had been around since the turn of the century and were showing no signs of going the way of the buggy whip. Stan and Jan shifted their focus to this alternate venue and thrived.
McCall’s quickly snapped up their new series, It’s All in the Family (no connection to the later TV sitcom), which graced its pages from 1956 to the new-broom regime of Shana Alexander in the early seventies when it migrated to Good Housekeeping, where it continued until 1988. This feature, in fact, lasted so long that for the final few years of its existence it was ghost-written and drawn by Stan and Jan’s son Mike.
It’s All in the Family took the mom, the dad, and the daughter from Sister, bookended the girl between an older and younger brother, and settled them down in a Leave-it-to-Beaverish suburbia tailored to the traditionally domestic McCall’s. These kids, by the way, had “real” names: Michael, Janie, and Billy. They even had a last name: the Harveys.
This feature–seven panel cartoons or more on a single theme once a month for thirty-two years–became the background to the Berenstain family life while Mike and Leo were growing up.
Mike’s (temporary) obsession with dinosaurs, for instance, was immediately seized upon and turned into cartoons.
It was older son, Leo’s, attempts to master a two-wheeler that provided the model for Janie’s bike riding experiences–though, he, no doubt, dispensed with the stylish beret.
It’s All in the Family migrated from McCall’s to Good Housekeeping in the 1970s, where the feature was finally retired in 1988.
Of course, by then, the hugely popular Berenstain Bears children’s book series, which made its debut in 1962, had come to dominate the creative life of Stan and Jan. The transition from cartoons about children to books for children was a natural one for Stan and Jan. As parents themselves, they were interested and critical consumers of children’s books.
Their professional interest was aroused, as well, when many former cartoonists came into prominence in the children’s book field during the early sixties. Most prominent of all was Theodor Seuss Geisel, also editor and publisher of the new Random House Beginner Books line, an outgrowth of Geisel’s groundbreaking early reader, The Cat in the Hat.
And, “the rest is history” as they say. As the Berenstain Bears celebrate their 50th Anniversary during 2012, you can read how this loveable family of bears who live down a sunny dirt road began in “How it all started” http://wp.me/p2duMi-8
Adapted and excerpted from Mike Berenstain’s Child’s Play: Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain, published by Abrams in 2008.
At the same time Stan and Jan were laboring over their larger cartoons, they continued to produce a flood of regulation-size gag cartoons chiefly, now, for Collier’s. They began to focus their efforts on a tomboyish, wise-cracking little girl they thought of, simply, as “Sister”―a cartoon everyone could connect with.
People sometimes ask, suspiciously, where the idea of naming the Berenstain Bears by their family roles, “Papa,” “Mama,” “Brother,” and “Sister,” came from. They seem to assume it has some subversive ideological import relating to their origin in the turbulent 1960s. But the truth of the matter is that came out of the innocent world of 1940s American family magazines―a world where kids were generically dubbed “Butch” or “Skip” or “Sis”―just another average all-American kid. The humor of the Sister cartoons could be sweetly cute and charming. But it could also verge into the slightly edgy and subversive.
Stan and Jan’s ever-rising professional profile drew the attention of an editor at Macmillan. Since they were so good at creating cartoons about kids, he wondered, why not try their hands at a book on the subject, as well? Dr. Spock’s Baby Book was, of course, the Bible of child-rearing in the early Fifties and seemed a natural target for a disrespectful spoof. Thus the Berenstains’ Baby Book was born, soon to be followed by a sequel, Baby Makes Four, and several other childrearing-themed books.
Much of the humor of these books centered on straightforward satire of the “by-the-book” and “he’s-just-acting-out” school of parenthood. Stan and Jan were particularly adept at mimicking the pompously professional jargon of the early self-help tomes.
Sister, the on-going panel cartoon they had produced for Collier’s, was the nucleus of the project. It was popular―a book collection was published in 1952―and many of the gags had already taken on a sequential form similar to that of a comic strip. Why not, schemed Stan and Jan, extend this successful magazine cartoon into a daily newspaper comic?
So, the intrepid couple set to work. The Register and Tribune Syndicate picked up the new strip for 1953 and 1954. The strip version of Sister highlighted the tomboyish, mischievous aspect of the character who was, in some ways, a female sibling of Dennis the Menace.
In the Sister Sunday features, Stan and Jan were able to loosen up with some elaborate and ambitious comic art. They were also able to explore more complex subject matter and follow up on their baby book successes by offering a little parenting advice.
Though similar in some ways to Dennis, Sister did not resemble the Menace in the extent of its newspaper distribution. The plain fact was that, in spite of all their efforts, it was not paying off. After about seven hundred drawings, Stan and Jan decided the newspaper business was not for them. They fled, sweat-soaked and ink-stained, not much richer but a little wiser, back into the welcoming arms of Collier’s, who happily, reintroduced their work in the original format they had pioneered: full-page feature cartoons.
Stay tuned for Team Berenstain – Part 4
In Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, Random House, 2002, Stan and Jan Berenstain describe an early professional breakthrough.
“Shortly before the turnaround in our magazine cartoon fortunes, we took a job teaching a Saturday morning children’s art class at Settlement School, a well-known institution in South Philadelphia. Working with kids, age five to eleven, was more like herding cats than teaching.”
“But teaching that class took us back. It reminded us of ourselves when we were kids. We began drawing upon our own childhood experiences for cartoon ideas. Kid jokes became our strongest suit.”
“Our cartoons were so small in print, though―about four by three inches. Not only that, they appeared in the back of the book and were limited to black-and-white. Why couldn’t cartoons be big-space features and appear in the front of the book? And color would be fun. With the headlong optimism of youth, we began noodling around with a whole new kind of cartoon. It would be about our new specialty: kids. It would occupy a full page and be in full color. It would show at least a hundred members of the skinned-knee set engaged in every kind of activity known to the schoolyard: kids running, jumping, fighting, wrestling; little girls with holes in their socks strutting past little boys, who were stopping off all the outlets in the bubbler fountain except one, which arced like a geyser onto other little girls swinging on railings. It would be a mad, multitudinous moppet mob scene, the apotheosis of childhood, a modern counterpart of Brueghel’s Children’s Games.”
“We worked it up and sent it off to Gurney Williams, Collier’s cartoon editor, who snapped it up and published it under the title Recess―in front of the book and in full color.”
Moreover, Williams wanted more. He urged them to create a sequel, immediately. This became Freeze ― a winter version of children at play: skating, hockey, sledding, skiing, snowball fights―you name it, it’s in there.
Freeze was followed by Gymnasium, which was followed by Saturday Matinee. For many it summed up a whole era of popular culture and one that was soon to disappear―the world of that afternoon-long, multilayered entertainment extravaganza, the Saturday matinee. Stan and Jan again produced a crowd scene of tots on the rampage. They drop things off the balcony, they take good aim with pea-shooters and squirt guns, they blow bubbles, climb on seat backs, play the kazoo, drip ice cream and, in the left foreground engage in something resembling major combat.
There are a few oases of peace in the theater, as well. One with a personal connection is the little boy in the front row, right, standing on his seat calmly sucking a lollipop while observing the chaos around him. This is a portrait of their son, Leo, who had just turned one.
Stan and Jan continue …
“We could hardly believe it when Collier’s ran our Saturday Matinee as a cover. The response was remarkable. Saturday Matinee struck a chord deep in the hearts of everyone who had ever tormented ushers, whistled through candy boxes, and dropped water bombs from the balcony. Thousands of letters poured into Collier’s editorial offices in New York, paeans of praise were read into the Congressional Record, Newsweek came to interview us in our ramshackle apartment over the Woodland Army and Navy Store.”
“We were twenty-four. We had gone from being a couple of struggling cartoonists too dumb to come in out of the rain―or at least too dumb to realize that toothpaste and burnt-lamb-chops were what magazines wanted―to being cover artists for one of the world’s leading magazines.”
Over the next two years, Stan and Jan produced ten Collier’s covers and one more interior full page. One of them, Art Museum, was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of a world exhibition of cartoon art.
If you missed Part 1 of Team Berenstain, you can read it here.
Part 3 is now available.
Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002 and from Mike Berenstain’s Child’s Play: Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain, published by Abrams in 2008.
Long before Stan and Jan Berenstain began to think about creating a family of bears as the subject of a series of children’s books, they were artists. Jan wrote, “Meeting for the first time at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts), we both were surprised and bemused that we would meet at all. We came from different high schools – city and suburban. Our backgrounds were different – Jewish and Protestant. But we thought of ourselves as, simply, American and, primarily, as artists.”
Soon after Stan and Jan were married on April 13, 1946, they set up housekeeping in a run-down, ramshackle, hot-in-the-summer, cold-in-the-winter, crooked apartment over the Woodland Army and Navy Store on Woodland Avenue in extreme south-western Philadelphia.
Stan’s early notion that doing cartoons for magazines would be a great way of making a living turned out to be a snare and a delusion. “We continued to sell occasional cartoons to The Saturday Review of Literature, but we had no success in selling to ‘the majors.’ The major magazines that used cartoons were The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, This Week (a Sunday supplement), Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Home Companion, and others.”
“But try as we would, we couldn’t break into the majors. Working together, one of us on one side of the drawing table and one on the other, we cranked out twelve to fifteen cartoons a week and sent them to a succession of magazines. We had as many as nine batches of cartoons in the mail at any given time. Week after week after week, we’d send them out, and week after week after week, they’d come back rejected. And every week we studied the cartoons in The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s and tried to figure out what we were doing wrong.”
“We had been submitting batches of cartoons every week for a year to about a dozen magazines without a single sale. We decided (at least Stan did) to break through the anonymity of the U.S. Postal Service and seek a face-to-face meeting with John Bailey, the cartoon editor of The Saturday Evening Post.”
“’Berenstain, let me ask you a question,’ Bailey said after listening to our sad story. ‘Do you ever look at our magazine?’”
“’Of course. Every cartoon, every week.’”
“’That’s surprising. Because every week I get a batch of cartoons from you – and I like your stuff, it’s pretty good – and every week your cartoons are about cultural stuff like art, music, history, science. But The Saturday Evening Post isn’t about such things. It’s a family magazine about ladies’ stockings hanging on the shower rail, kids stealing cookies out of the cookie jar, taking the dog to the vet. Sure, our readers have heard of Picasso and Freud, but they’re not interested in jokes about them. What they’re interested in is jokes about themselves … Well, does that make any sense to you?’”
“’Yes, it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for letting me come down to see you.’”
“So we set to work doing cartoons about getting the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube, ladies’ stockings hanging on the shower rail, kids stealing cookies out of the cookie jar, taking the dog to the vet – and we began to sell to the majors!”
“After failing to sell a single cartoon in our first year of weekly submissions, we proceeded to sell a total of 154 cartoons in our second year. We had six cartoons in one issue of The Saturday Evening Post – a record.”
These cartoons struck some kind of a nerve. First the Post, then Collier’s, and then a host of other magazines began snapping them up. Everyone from The New York Times to Successful Farming were suddenly featuring Stan and Jan’s work.
In The Big Honey Hunt, Brother was called Small Bear. But after Sister arrived in The Berenstain Bears and the New Baby, Small Bear became Brother Bear.
Another cub was added to the family in The Birds, the Bees, and the Berenstain Bears.
The story focuses on the experience of Mama’s pregnancy as seen by Sister Bear. The baby is born at the end of the book. But Papa and Mama, in their excitement, forget to tell Brother and Sister the new baby’s name or whether it’s a boy or a girl.
A contest at the end of the book invited readers to guess whether the baby was a boy or girl and to name the baby. The winner received a complete library of autographed First Time Books, Berenstain Bears home videos from Columbia TriStar and CD-ROM games from Sound Source Interactive.
The Berenstain Bears and Baby Makes Five begins with the results of the contest: “The Bear family, who lives in the big tree house down a sunny dirt road, has a new member: a baby girl named Honey. What fun! What excitement!”
And so, our dear little Honey was born into our Berenstain Bears family!
Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002.
The first Berenstain Bears book was The Big Honey Hunt, published in 1962. It was part of the Beginner Books series, a new division of Random House. Its trademark was “I can read it all by myself,” and its president and editor-in-chief was Theodor (Ted) Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.
So we were off to the races. We were all set to do a series of books about our crazy bears who lived down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country.
A few weeks after Honey Hunt went into production, Ted called. He and Helen (his wife, Helen Palmer) were coming east. He invited us to lunch. We would celebrate the publication of Honey Hunt and perhaps discuss what our next book might be. Stan hung up the phone and we looked at each other. It had been a tough fight, but we had won.
We met Ted and Helen at Random House and walked over to the Park Lane Hotel, where we would be having lunch. Lunch was posh, pleasant, and relaxed. With dessert on the way, Ted said, “Well, Berenstains, what do you have in mind for your next book?” What we had in mind, of course, was the next book in a series about our bears.
“Well, Ted,” said Stan, “we figure that since we’ve got these bears all worked out, what we want to do is a whole bear series, and for the next book ―”
“Worst thing you could possibly do,” said Ted, looking off into the deep space of the elegant hotel dining room. “A series would be a millstone around your necks. Besides, there are already too many bears. Sendak’s got some kind of a bear. There’s Yogi Bear, the Three Bears, Smokey Bear, the Chicago Bears. No, for your next book you should do something as different from bears as possible.”
We were shocked, stunned, catatonic. We remained so through dessert, the taxi ride to the station, and much of the train ride home. After a long mutual silence, Jan turned and said, “Talk to me, hon! Talk to me.”
The advertisement on the front panel of the train car was for Kool mentholated cigarettes. It said, “Smoke Kools!” It featured the Kool Cigarette penguin skating in an artic setting. As the Pensy hurtled past Trenton and into the outer reaches of North Philadelphia, the following exchange took place:
Stan: “I’ve been looking at that ‘Smoke Kools’ poster.”
Stan: “What do you think about penguins?”
Jan: “Well, they’re certainly different from bears.”
Hey, maybe Ted was right. Maybe there were too many books about bears. Ted had been around a lot longer than we had. There certainly weren’t too many books about penguins. As far as we knew, there weren’t any. We’d have the whole penguin market to ourselves. We’d think further about it in the morning.
We awoke the next morning with a sense of loss. We’d had our hearts set on a bear series. We had worked so hard getting to know our bears, cultivating them, bringing them into being. But we proposed and Ted disposed. And there wasn’t a thing we could do about it. It took us a while to get over our disappointment, but we did.
We began thinking about penguins. We began noodling around with a penguin character. We handed penguin sketches back and forth. A character began to appear. He was a cute little guy. He wore a little wool hat and a long red scarf and lived in an igloo. But we needed a story. The South Pole environment wasn’t exactly teeming with story possibilities. Nothing much happened at the South Pole. Maybe that was the key to our story―though “nothing happening” was hardly a promising idea. But we thought of something that offered the glimmer of a story.
What we had in mind for our little igloo-dwelling penguin was a polar walkabout. But how to motivate such a walkabout. We hit on the idea of a diary―the kind with lock and key and a pencil on a string. One morning, just such a diary arrives in the igloo (we figured a diary arriving out of nowhere was covered by cartoonist license). Our penguin opens the diary. The first page says, “Walk around the South Pole and write down what happens every day!” Our penguin dutifully embarks on his polar walk, pencil at the ready. Things happen―cataclysmic things: icebergs thrust up through the ice cap, polar bears attack giant walruses, killer whales attack polar bears. But they all happen behind our penguin, just after he has passed. So he is completely oblivious of them. (We gave him earmuffs so he wouldn’t hear the racket.) He walks all day. He returns to his igloo, opens his diary, and writes, “Nothing ever happens at the South Pole.” End of story. That’s what we called it: Nothing Ever Happens at the South Pole.
We did our penguin book up brown, or to be precisely accurate, we did it up red and blue. Our penguin book not only would be different from Honey Hunt, it would look different. We did the whole thing with one of those blue-at-one-end, red-at-the-other-end pencils that came with kids’ pencil cases. Our penguin’s hat and scarf and the cover of his diary were red. Everything else in the book was icy blue.
We knew when Ted and Helen would be coming east again. We called, and without giving away what the book was about, arranged for a meeting to present it to Ted and company.
The atmosphere in Ted’s office was as cordial as ever, but strangely subdued. “Well,” said Ted, “let’s have a look.” He sat at a desk up near the front of the office. Helen and Phyllis (Phyllis was Bennett Cerf’s wife; Bennett was chairman and co-founder of Random House) weren’t crowding around as they usually did. We placed the dummy on the desk and hovered nervously as Ted proceeded to go through it. “Nothing Ever Happens at the South Pole,” he intoned. “Helluva title … hmm … about a damn penguin … cute little bugger. Good idea―the business with the diary. Wonderful drawing. It’s really quite beautiful …” But he was only about halfway through it when he looked up. “Berenstains, let me run something past you. An interesting thing has happened. The salesmen have The Big Honey Hunt out on the road. And it’s going over big. The buyers love it. We’ve already upped the first printing. So let me ask you. What would you think about doing another bear book next? There’s no reason why there couldn’t be a whole bear series.” The offices were quiet and still. Dust motes sparkled in the sun rays streaming in the high windows. “But I like this penguin book a lot. We’ll just put it on the back burner,” he added.
“Yeah, sure,” said Jan. “I think we could do that.”
“Sure, we’re game,” said Stan.
At the time this story was retold in Down a Sunny Dirt Road some forty years later, the manuscript was still buried in the Berenstains’ art files. Two years ago, it resurfaced while Jan was reviewing old files and now Harper Collins has published it – just in time to celebrate 50 years of the Berenstain Bears! http://bit.ly/B_Nothing
Using The Berenstain Bears Out West as an illustration, this is the process the Berenstains use to create each of their new books.
1 The first step to writing a book is to create the idea for the story. Initially Stan and Jan thought there would be just a few (5 or so) universal family issues to write about. There are now over 350 different titles!
2 An outline or paragraph description of the story is written and sent to the publisher to see if they like the idea.
3 The manuscript for the story is written and submitted to the publisher for input. Sometimes this can include ideas for what the pictures will look like at particular spots in the story.
The final manuscript as it was sent to the publisher. Note the ideas for pictures which will illustrate the text are included.
4 The manuscript is sent back and forth between the editors and the Berenstains until everyone agrees on the story.
5 The cover is the first illustration which is drawn for the book. Sometimes this can be as much as a year before the book comes out. The publisher uses this piece of artwork to begin promoting the book.
6 A sketch layout of the book is made on tissue paper and the words of the story are cut and pasted in. This is sent to the publisher for input and editing. Originally Stan and Jan began their layouts with storyboards, as influenced by Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), but eventually they just skipped ahead to doing rough sketches.
A refined rough sketch with the text pasted in.
7 The rough drawings are transferred with pencil to illustration board. A light box or table is used to trace the images from the rough drawings. These drawings are refined as they are transferred.
8 The traced images are then inked in with India ink and old-fashioned pens, which give the Berenstains better control than using paintbrushes.
9 The color is added to the images. First the shadows are painted with gray washes (blue or violet tones). The full color is then added over the top. The Berenstains use Dr. Martin’s liquid watercolors.
This shows the same picture after all the color has been painted.
10 The finished artwork is sent to the publisher. The Berenstain Bears Out West, an I Can Read book, was published by Harper Collins in 2006.