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April 11, 2009

Growing Up Berenstain: Son follows in parents' famous paw prints

Despite the fact that his parents, Stan and Jan Berenstain, have been the most prolific children's book authors to date, Michael Berenstain said he never felt as if they were too busy for him. Their creativity obviously passed to the next generation.

Despite the fact that his parents, Stan and Jan Berenstain, have been the most prolific children's book authors to date, Michael Berenstain said he never felt as if they were too busy for him.

"Their home was sort of their creative world," he said in a recent interview at the Christian Book Expo in Dallas. "Their studio was part of the house, and I was in and out of it. I would lie on the floor of the studio while they were working, drawing. I would type on their typewriter. I would work on their light box while they were working. They may have not wanted me to interrupt them, but I never had any sense of that.

"They were always doing things, creative things, for me and my brother. They would make puppets for us, models and costumes. I remember a big horse costume, a two-person horse costume with the head and everything, that they made for us. I remember a whole train set diorama that they made for the trains at Christmastime with all the tunnels and trees on it. It was like the creative family factory, and they were the leaders."

Their creativity obviously passed to the next generation. Michael, a children's book illustrator himself, began helping his folks in the mid-1980s when the Berenstain Bears emigrated to television and his parents couldn't keep up with all the books and other work. In the 1990s, Michael began working with them full time, work that has continued since the death of his father in 2005.

The newest project is a series of 12 faith-based books with the Bear family, published by Zonderkidz.

"My parents and I have always been aware that we've had a huge amount of enthusiasm from religious families, people of all religions, but especially from Christian families," Berenstain, 57, said. "So the idea of doing books specifically about faith issues has been in the back of our minds because that's so important to people who are big fans of our books."

At least one book, "The Berenstain Bears Love Their Neighbors," is a retelling of a biblical story, that of the Good Samaritan. Others use biblical themes or verses.

"We have one we're working on now called 'The Gift of Courage' that uses the story of David and Goliath as part of the story," Berenstain said. "Sister Bear uses that story in her own life of dealing with a bully. We're working on one called 'The Joy of Giving,' which is a Christmas story that deals with a Christmas play at church about the gift of the Magi. The kids in that story learn the true meaning of giving gifts at Christmas.

"Sometimes they're not based on biblical stories. One called 'Faithful Friends' uses quotations from the Bible, basically from Proverbs, and other quotations about friendship as illustrations of how to deal properly and faithfully with your friends and not treat them badly."

'Ears too low'

When Berenstain made the switch from working on his own to working with his parents, did he get any criticism from the two, who had worked together since they married in the 1940s?

"Sure," he said. "That's my mother, the keeper of the stylebook in her head. She would make my dad change things.

"I remember early on, I was doing a book for them and I had done sketches of the whole book. I went over to get approval and see if there were any corrections or changes. My mom said, 'That's fine, except there's just one problem: On the character bears, you've made the ears too low.' I said, 'Oh, I hadn't realized that. I'll change it.'

"So I take it back to my studio and as I'm looking at it, I thought, 'Doesn't look too low to me.' I'm thinking, this is pretty basic. I've been an artist a long time, and I should be able to see this. It's puzzling. Not that I mind changing it, but why am I not picking this up? I got out a whole bunch of Berenstain Bear books I had been using as a model. I start comparing and looking and lining things up, and they look the same to me.

"So I call my mom up and say, 'Mom, it's fine with me if you want to raise the ears in the book, but in the books up to the recent ones, it looks to me that I'm lining them up on the head where they always have been.' And she said, 'Yeah, yeah, you're right. Your dad has always made the ears too low. I'm tired of it. I think they should be a little higher.' She said, 'The problem is, they're bears; they're not people. Bears have ears up high on their heads and people have their ears lined up with their eyes. I think even though these are cartoon bears -- they're not real bears -- they should have their ears up higher than people ears.'

"So you see where their ears are now, they're up above the eyes. That change took in the 1990s. If you look at the ones from the '80s, they're down more on the side because that's where my dad used to put them. She hadn't changed them before, but apparently it was annoying her."

Berenstain said he enjoyed drawing as a child, but not to the exclusion of other interests.

"I always liked to draw, but I didn't particularly focus on art," he said. "I was a hobbyist. To me, art was one of my hobbies. Whatever came along was going to become a hobby. It was collecting insects or rocks or having an anemometer (wind vane) on the roof or a telescope or fishing, or whatever it was. Model airplanes, anything."

Was he an outdoors kind of kid?

"Well, it was the '50s and '60s and everyone was outdoors, running around with all the neighbor kids all the time," he said. "I mean, there were only three channels on the television, so you went outdoors.

"I was not athletic. I was an outdoors, catching frogs kind of kid. My brother took up all the athleticism. I was more of a play-in-the-swamp kind of kid. Sometimes I was a loner; sometimes I wasn't. It varied. I was good in school. I was interested in science, so I was good in science."

The Berenstain Bugs

In fact, he said, when he was younger he thought he'd grow up to be an entomologist.

"I was so interested in insects and butterflies and bugs and anything that crawled around on many legs that I was definitely focused on entomology for a while," Berenstain said. "I guess I was like in junior high school, 11, 12 years old. But then I figured out that what an entomologist really does is work for, like the agriculture department, studying how many locusts there are per square foot in Kansas or something, and I thought, well, maybe that's not so interesting.

"I was thinking of entomology as something like you're going through the jungles of the Amazon with a butterfly net. The thoroughly romantic entomologist/adventurer. Kind of the Capt. Cook entomologist. That's not really a job these days."

So he ended up joining the Bears team, one that he'd grown up with and was familiar with -- especially because the characters and some plots were based on his own family.

"They tell authors to write about what you know, and Papa Bear and Mama Bear are exaggerated, but are similar in style to my mom and dad," Berenstain said. "My mom is very calm and sensible and quiet. She's very funny, but it's more of a dry wit. My dad was very excitable and voluble and outgoing, and accident-prone. I'm like that, too. Not quite as much as he was, but I've continued to base a lot of humor and plot points revolving around Papa Bear on the things that I've actually done in my life, just as my dad did about the things in his life."

For example, he said, "We have one coming out called 'Play a Good Game.' It revolves around soccer games and bad sportsmanship and applying biblical principles to learn good sportsmanship. It's based on my experience with kids sports and being an assistant coach and watching and getting mad and watching other coaches getting mad at me and parents flipping out and how that all just degenerates into a horrible mess."

Mixed-faith home

Did he learn biblical principles in his childhood home?

"I was not raised as a Christian," he said. "My father's side of the family is Jewish, but mostly secular. My father was not raised in the religion. My mother was raised as a Christian but wasn't particularly religious. I was raised kind of betwixt and between the two traditions, sort of a Judeo-Christian mix with emphasis on ethics and teachings. My parents read the Bible to me, taught me Bible stories, but I didn't become a Christian until I was an adult."

That happened, he said, when he and his wife began sending their children to a Quaker school, the tradition in his wife's family. Berenstain said he began working in the children's programs and then began going to a Presbyterian church, where he experienced a new faith.

"That was the context in which I experienced Christ," he said.

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or

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