Nothing Ever Happens at the South Pole

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.”

Jan:  “Uh-huh.”

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.

This is the original cover sketch that Jan and Stan drew for Ted Geisel. Note that their names were still “Stanley and Janice Berenstain.” It was Ted who shortened it to “Stan and Jan Berenstain.”

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.

Ted beamed.  He stood up and grasped Stan’s hand.  Then he gave Jan a big hug.  Helen was grinning.  Phyllis was bringing a tray of coffee.  There were cookies.

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! 

From Idea to Published Book

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.

This was taken from a list of ideas sent to Harper Collins. Note the final title of the book changed from the original 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 original handwritten manuscript.

The final manuscript as it was sent to the publisher.  Note the ideas for pictures which will illustrate the text are included.

The final typed draft of the manuscript. Note the ideas for pictures that will accompany the text.

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.

This shows the rough sketch of the cover. On the right is the board Stan used to experiment with colors which would be used.

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 beginning very rough sketch of pages 2 and 3.

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.

The image as it was traced and refined from the rough sketch.

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 shadows which have been painted in.

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.

The final artwork as it appeared in the published book.

The Berenstains’ A Book – Amazing!

From the art files, it is apparent Stan and Jan began work on the Berenstains’ A Book in about 1972.   This title was to be part of the Beginner Book series, of which Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) was the editor.  No matter how they sketched the book for Ted, it seems they just couldn’t satisfy him.  There are at least seven different versions of the story in the files.

The first, dated February 10, 1972, shows Small Bear interacting with a variety of “A” words.


An ankle — An anthill

Asleep with an ankle on an anthill

Until the final sketch, showing the moral to the story:

– you should never fall asleep with an ankle on an anthill.

Following Ted’s rejection, the next version was dated March 17, 1972.  It begins with the following page:

A is for Ant

And ends with the rescue of Albert Ant who is caught in a spider web:

A is for Albert Ant – Albert Ant is why ants advanced across an apple, an acorn, an apricot, an ax, an angle worm, an alligator, an airplane, an avenue, apes’ apartments and Arizona!

The next version, dated April 13, 1972, begins with these pages:

A Book – April 13, 1972

Big A – Abner
Small a – apples

It contains all sorts of “A” words, as the previous versions do.  This version, however, has no story line, but is rather a collection of simple sentences all containing “A” words and shows the differences between upper and lower case “A.”

The next version, dated August 18, 1972, is titled “Aunt Ada’s Adventure: An A Book” which takes Aunt Ada on adventures all the way to Atlantic City and back again.

Aunt Ada’s Adventure: An A Book

Following this are several undated versions, all completely different:

The A Book
So long Pop! I’m going out to play! What? You didn’t have your lesson yet today.

We will start with some A words. I have many for you. A is for Apple. Applesauce too.

This version begins to resemble the final version of the Berenstains’ A Book:


and finally this version is the sketch version of the story as it was finally published:


Ironically, the Berenstains’ A Book was never published while Ted Geisel was at the helm of the Beginner Books series.  It wasn’t until 1997, twenty-five years after the first sketches for this book, that it was finally published by Random House as part of its Bright and Early Books series.  Amazing!

“The Bear Detectives” under inspection

Originally published in 1975,  The Bear Detectives was part of Random House’s Beginner Books series.  Jan and Stan’s art file for this book has a number of things of interest.

The cover went through a several drafts before the final art work was determined.

An early sketch when the book was first envisioned.

A later draft

Close to the final version.

The cover as it was printed.

All Berenstain Bears books begin with pencil sketches.  These are the sketches for the first 2 pages in the book:

Part of the first series of sketches for this book.

A final version of the first page of the story.

A final version of the second page of the story.

Here are those pages as they appeared in the printed book:

First page as it was printed.

Second page as it was printed.

In the early days of the Berenstain Bears books, they were printed by color separation.  In this process the original artwork is separated into individual color components for printing. The components are cyan (blue), magenta (red), yellow and black, known as CMYK. By combining these colors, a wide spectrum of colors can be produced on the printed page.  Each color is printed separately.  When the colors are combined on the paper, your eye combines the colors to see the final image.

To create a piece of color art by this process, the artist had to first complete a line drawing in black ink.  This drawing was then printed on four separate pieces of illustration board in light blue.  Photographic film was not sensitive to this tone.  A similar principle was used in the “blue screen” process for special effects in films.  The artist then painted gray washes on the four pieces of board.  The darkness of the wash determined the darkness of each color.  A gray-percentage chart was provided as a guide.  Equivalent shades of gray and color were shown so the artist could judge how dark the gray tone should be.  Stan and Jan created all their children’s books, published between 1962 and 1975, by this exacting process.

What follows are the color separated pages that became the finished page at the end.

First step: line drawing in black ink.

The cyan layer

The magenta layer.

The yellow layer.

The black layer.

The printed pages as they appear in the book.

Remember Stan and Jan had to go through this process for each page in every book they created during that time.


When Stan and Jan began publishing the First Time Books series with Random House, each book included what they called a “four-liner” on the half-title page.  These catchy four-line poems first appeared in The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby.

“The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby” – 1974

Each book after that has included a different “four-liner.”

“The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers” – 1985

“The Berenstain Bears Go Out for the Team” – 1986

“The Berenstain Bears No Girls Allowed” – 1986

“The Berenstain Bears and the Mama’s Day Surprise” – 2004

Do you have a favorite Berenstain Bears four-liner?  Please add it to the comments below!

For the Berenstain Bears 50th Anniversary, Random House is republishing many of these old-time favorites with great sticker sheets included in each book.  They are available where ever books are sold.

The Pictureback Arrives

Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002.

While the early 1970s saw the publication of The B Book, Bears in the Night, C Is for Clown, The Bears’ Almanac, and He Bear, She Bear, change was on the horizon.

“Although paperbacks had been a major and rapidly growing factor in the publishing business since the late forties, they did not become an important factor in the children’s picture book market until Ole Risom came from Golden Books to Random House and created the Pictureback line (a play on “paperback”).  The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby, an early Pictureback title, was an auspicious event for us for a number of reasons.  It was one of our first two paperbacks (The Berenstain Bears’ Nursery Tales was first), it brought Sister Bear into the family (changing Small Bear’s name to Brother Bear after that), and it gave us the opportunity to do stories about ordinary, everyday family experiences.

An event depicted in New Baby came directly from something that happened when Jan was pregnant with Michael.  Jan often took Leo onto her lap for book readings.  Over time Leo noticed Jan’s lap was getting smaller.  This provided an excellent opportunity to tell him why.  Leo, a model of generosity and equanimity, found the news both interesting and acceptable.  Shortly after Michael was born, Leo climbed onto Jan’s lap and was delighted to find that it had returned.  ‘Mommy,’ he said, ‘you got your lap back!'”

The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby, a First Time Book, was published by Random House in 1974.

1970 Brought Two New Titles

Do you remember Old Hat New Hat and The Bears’ Christmas?

While out shopping, the Bears look at frilly and silly hats, bumpy and lumpy ones in The Berenstain Bears Old Hat, New Hat.  See the development of pages 10-11 from the sketch (first image) to the version that was published (second image).

The sketch version of pages 10-11.

The published version of pages 10-11.

In The Bears’ Christmas, there’s a whole lot to learn one Christmas morning in Bear Country when Papa Bear teaches his son a thing or two about skiing, skating, and sledding. But in the end, it was “The very best Christmas we ever had!

Sketch for pages 56-57
(Pages 58-59 in final version)

Both titles were published by Random House in 1970. 

Book #7 – Bears on Wheels

Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002.

Bears on Wheels was a highly unconventional counting book that begins with “One bear on one wheel” (a unicycle).

The story works its way through permutations and combinations of bears on wheels until all participants are unseated in a cataclysmic crash, leaving “Twenty-one on none.”

Bears on Wheels was published by Random House in 1969.

Book #6 – Inside, Outside, Upside Down

Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002. 

We were working on the text of The Bear Scouts, which would be our fourth bear book, when Ted called from La Jolla.  He was starting a whole new line called “Bright and Early Books.”  It would be much younger than Beginner Books – a reading-readiness line.

“We’re very excited about it,” he continued.  “There’s nothing like it on the market.  So put the scout thing aside and see what you can come up with for the new line.”

“And, oh yes,” he added in an aside that sent our hearts down into our shoes.  “Don’t do bears on this project.  We’ve got enough bears for a while.  Anyway, you can’t do bears forever.”

Ted’s excitement was electrifying, but the effect was short-circuited by his “don’t do bears” edict.  It was déjà vu all over again.  We had, in our innocence, thought we coulddo bears forever.  But maybe Ted was right.  Maybe we couldn’t.

Most of our story ideas are consciously thought up.  But sometimes ideas come unbidden.  The phrase “inside, outside, upside down” was such an idea.  But what was it?  What did it mean?  It would make an interesting title.  But where would the title take us?  Ted wanted something completely different, huh?  A whole new feel?  A whole new look?  We’d give him a look that would knock his socks off.

We noodled around until we found out what Inside, Outside, Upside Down was about.  It was about a red gorilla who sat inside a hollow tree, a crow wearing a magenta beret who was outside sitting on a branch, and a two-toed sloth who was hanging upside down on a limb.  Ted wanted different.  We’d give him different.  We took the red gorilla, the crow with the magenta beret, and the two-toed sloth and sent them on a topsy-turvy trip to town.  When they arrived, they proclaimed, “We went to town!  Inside, outside, upside down!”

We fetched it up to New York and set it before Ted.  “Wow!” he said as he leafed through it.  “Fabulous! —I love ‘em!  But I’ve been talking to the salesmen and they think that since your bears are so well established, we ought to have at least one bear book in the new line.  But this is a great concept.  Maybe you can convert it to bears.  What do you think?”  What did we think?  You know that song “I Think I’m Goin’ out of My Head”?  That’s what we thought.

We arrived home in a deep funk.  We remained so for most of the next day.  Jan came out of it first.  She wanted to be alone.  She took a pencil and drawing pad into the yard and sat at our weathered old picnic table.  By late afternoon she had penciled a whole new bear version of Inside, Outside, Upside Down.  In fifteen pictures and sixty-six words, she told how Small Bear goes into a box that gets dollied onto a truck and taken to town.  The box falls off the truck, whereupon Small Bear climbs out and runs home shouting, “Mama! Mama! I went to town inside, outside, upside down!”

Inside, Outside, Upside Down was published by Random House in 1968 – by 2002 it had sold 3 million copies.

Book #5 – The Bears’ Vacation

Adapted and excerpted from Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, published by Random House in 2002.

There were occasions when we stood on principle and resisted Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss).  Consider the case of the length of Papa Bear’s finger-nails and toe-nails for example:  “Papa’s finger- and toe-nails are too damn long!” pronounced Ted in the course of going through The Bears’ Vacation.  “They make my teeth hurt!”

It was bad news when Ted’s teeth hurt.  But artistic integrity required us to take a stand.  We backed our stand with a letter from a boy who held a contrary opinion.  “I really like your books,” said the letter.  “My favorite character is Papa Bear.  His fingernails and toenails are awesome!”

Ted backed off.  Kid’s opinions had a certain standing with him.

The Bears Vacation was published by Random House in 1968.