Thursday, December 01, 2005

Stan Berenstain: An appreciation

For those of you who haven't heard, Stan Berenstain, co-author with his wife Jan of the popular Berenstain Bears series, passed away earlier this week.

Most of the obituaries tend to be respectful, if typically perfunctory. A few, however, caught my eye either for being vaguely snarky, like this New York Times obit, or outright comptemptuous, like this Washington Post story.

The Post story in particular seems to take the Bears series to task for lacking "subtlety and joy." Oh, and for making the dad behave like such an idiot. It's not enough I suppose, to offer young children reassuring stories of how to deal with the problems and fears they face every day and do so in a consistently engaging and entertaining fashion. You have to be pc and in an overly precious fashion too.

It seems like the criticism is essentially a case of familiarity breeding contempt. The books, TV show and various other spin-offs are inescapable to anyone with young children (I have two). Like some people's attitudes towards Peanuts, people seem to hate the Berenstain Bears for just being so ubiquitous.

Reading these two pieces riled me up, because, in case you haven't guessed yet, I love the Berenstain Bears. As a parent, I'm a fan of the series, and my four-year-old daughter has a hardcore jones for the books. I have no doubt her love of books was in a good part due to Stan and Jan.

I'll address the Post's (and Times') criticisms in a moment, but first I wanted to talk about Mr. Berenstain's skills as an artist. No less an authority than Dr. Seuss claimed that Stan could draw just about anything, and it's true. More than that, however, he was a consumate cartoonist. Consider this (somewhat truncated) spread from "The Berenstain Bears' New Baby":

Notice how the authors use the trees to separate the story panels. Such artifices are frequently used by modern cartoonists but Stan and Jan may be the first to use such a device, at least in a children's book.

And look at the level of detail (not to mention the brilliant colors) on this page from "Berenstain Bears Go To School."

Yes, the stories followed a very basic formula (sister and/or brother have a problem, one parent -- usually mama -- provides a solution, crisis averted). And yes, Papa usually got the brunt of the jokes, though he occasionally could be the sole calming voice as well (as in "Messy Room" or "Sleepover.")

But the Berenstain Bears series dealt with real fears and problems that very young kids face. To a four-year-old, starting school or having to spend a week at Grandma's can be more terrifying than the monster under the bed. These books talk to kids at their level and provide much needed reassurance in a charming, easy-to-read fashion.

It's a bit harder for me to defend Papa's doltishness except to say it wouldn't do for Mama to be the fall guy. Like Homer Simpson, Papa Bear often showed kids how not to behave (though he was never as bad as Homer) and let's face it, kids like seeing adults behave badly, at least in books. It makes them feel better about themselves.

But if the cookie-cutter aspect of the series puts off some critics, then I ask them to turn their attention toward the Beginner Books series they did under Seuss' editorial guidence. Titles like "Old Hat, New Hat," and "Bears In the Night" readily offer the subtlety, joy and sense of wonder that those stuffed shirts at the Post are searching for.

I don't mean to make it sound like Stan was the sole creative force behind the series. I have no doubt Jan and, recently, their children, have had as much a hand in shaping the series as he did and nor do I doubt the series will continue at least for the foreseeable future.

But I am just as certain that children's literature and cartoonists everywhere have lost a giant with his passing. I for one, will miss him.

For those seeking more, The Comics Journal message board recently started a thread, and RIOT! owner Jason Richards has a nice memorial over at his blog.


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