April 6, 2009

Who Knew? Pre-Bearpocalypse, The Berenstains Were Awesome.


Wow, who knew? Who knew that before they completely sold out and flooded the world with 300 million-and-counting books about their brainless Bear Family, Jan and Stan Berenstain were apparently excellent, talented, witty, and even famous illustrators of the modern parenting experience?

Who knew? Your grandparents, that's who. The Berenstains rode the post-war baby boom to fame, depicting the new, suburban family chaos of overrun parks and kid-filled movie theaters for magazines like McCall's and Collier's in the 1950's. They had a series of humorous and best-selling parenting books, too.

Then in 1962, The Bears came along, midwifed by Dr Seuss himself, Theodore Geisel, who was the head of Random House's children's book division. And all that was good and awesome and complex and witty and observant about the Berenstain's art was drowned in a decades-long sea of forehead-slapping, retrograde, cliched, money-minting simplemindedness. Or so I'm guessing. I don't get near those Berenstain Bears, and I don't let the kids near them, either. Old Hat, New Hat doesn't count.

Anyway, Mark discovered an exhibit of lost Berenstain masterpieces and has a few snaps on BoingBoing. And the Berenstain's son put out a book of the early stuff last year, though it sounds like they're just scratching the surface.

Innocent question: Wouldn't it be worth getting the book just to see how many of the millions of little kids the Berenstains drew over the Baby Boom years weren't white?

Stan and Jan Berenstain's mid-century illustrations [boingboing]
Buy Child's Play: The Berenstain Baby Boom, 1946-1964 - Cartoon Art of Stan and Jan Berenstain by Michael Berenstain at Amazon [amazon via boingboing]
Previously, 2005: Stan Berenstain dies, Retrograde bears live on


"Bears on Wheels" is also exempt.

I learned to like the Berensteins as an adolescent, via the "Lover Boy" cartoon books. They were about men with infantile sexual habits and the wives who, for some reason, did not divorce them. I expect that was not the aim of the comics, however.

Granted, there were the occasional forays into woman-bashing on the topics of fashion, stupid diets, and the unwillingness to thrash children into military obedience.

Also "Inside, Outside, Upside Down" and "Bears in the Night." There's a big difference between the books that were done for Random House as part of the "Beginners Books" series and the later books that became all preachy and moralistic. There's sort of a breakpoint, sometime around "He Bear, She Bear" - which is not awful but I think leads to the awful ones. (I say "later" - I haven't checked copyright dates, but the trajectory feels right.)

When I was little, we randomly had one of their books "for adults," called something like, "How to Teach Your Children About God (Without Totally Scaring Them Out of Their Wits)." I read it as a child anyway, and I remember something about the father biting the head of a chocolate Easter Bunny clean off, and about them jerking Junior out of various religious classes "so fast his little head spins." Clearly the whole religion thing went right over my head.

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