Bearing Their Souls

Jan and Stan Berenstain mark 40 years of their popular children's series with a joint autobiography

Anyone who has been a reader of children's books in the past 40 years is likely to know that down a sunny dirt road live the Berenstain Bears, an ursine nuclear family that faces, and overcomes, a plague of suburban dilemmas: Trouble With Money, New Neighbors, Forgetting Their Manners, Too Much Pressure.

Like other wholesome residents of the U.S. of A., the Berenstain Bears gleefully celebrate Christmas and Easter and attend the Beartown Church fair. Yet despite a last name with a suspiciously ethnic ring, what the bears have never done is betray that the family has its roots in anywhere but Middle America. Until now.

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Berenstain Bears books, more than 260 million copies of which have been sold around the world, Stan and Jan Berenstain - the married couple who have produced the more than 200 Berenstain Bears books - have written and illustrated "Down a Sunny Dirt Road" (Random House), a joint autobiography.

"Down a Sunny Dirt Road" (the title is the opening line of many of the Berenstain Bears books) takes the Berenstain Bears out of the ethnic closet once and for all, revealing that Stan, at least, is Jewish.

Stan, who at one point in the book remembers himself as a "skinny, lantern-jawed exotic," describes his boyhood in a gritty, lower-class urban Philadelphia family - a family "pogrommed out of the Ukraine." He suffers through the privations of the Great Depression to become a writer and artist. His descriptions of his childhood and adolescence contain all the details of the typical early-20th-century Jewish immigrant family, living over an army-navy store and going to dances at the local synagogue to try to pick up girls (although Stan's parents allowed him to receive Christmas presents, they stopped short of having a Christmas tree).

In alternating chapters Jan (nee Janice Grant) recounts how she grew up in an Episcopalian Philadelphia family. Her father was artistically inclined - he took night courses in architecture at Drexel University. The family settled in the suburbs, and Jan spent her childhood cultivating her artistic gifts and practicing the piano until the Depression hit and the family moved back to West Philadelphia. Still, an idyllic childhood of school plays and dances persisted. Like Stan, her love of drawing led to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, where they met.

The two artists - now both 79 - in New York City from their home in Solebury, Pa., on a book tour, met the Forward at an Upper East Side hotel, clinging as closely to each other's sides as any love-struck teenage couple.

They talked about the years after art school, when Stan was drafted to serve in World War II and would send Jan mash notes from the army. "They were hilarious letters," said Jan.

Jan's mother, who opened one of the letters, didn't find them so hilarious. She told Jan that any future correspondence from Stan would be destroyed upon receipt. Stan's mother ended up acting as an intermediary for the two.

Eventually Stan was discharged from the army and the two were married in a storefront courtroom in Philadelphia.

Stan began his cartoonist career while a corporal in the army. He sent a cartoon to the Saturday Review of Literature and received $35. Stan and Jan developed a simple plan: "We'll just sell 10 cartoons a week, and we'll be rich," Stan said. (The profusely illustrated book includes examples.)

Seinfeldian stories

After several years of drawing cartoons for the Saturday Review, McCall's, Collier's and other publications, the Berenstains were asked to write a children's book under the editorship of Theodor Geisel - better known as Dr. Seuss.

It was Geisel, in fact, who first dubbed their creations the "Berenstain Bears" on the cover of their second book.

The Berenstain Bears are very much based on the Berenstain artists. For the uninitiated, the family includes Mama Bear, always in a blue-and-white polka-dot outfit; the sometimes brash and frequently bumbling Papa Bear; Brother and Sister Bear, the eldest of the children, and Baby Bear, who made her debut 38 years ago in "Baby Makes Five."

There's an almost Seinfeldian quality to the Berenstain Bears; their stories are about mundane, ordinary life. Brother and Sister have to go to the dentist - that's a book; Brother and Sister Bear get into a fight - another book. In nearly every book, Papa Bear does something foolish, and Mama Bear smiles knowingly.

"We used to deny it," Stan said of his and Jan's similarities to their furry alter egos, but they have given up trying. "I'm not as much of a loony [as Papa Bear]. [Jan] is not quite as wise as Mama. Not quite." Both Stan and Jan laughed.

There are other differences between the bear family and its creators. Brother and Sister are, in real life, two brothers. Michael and Leo Berenstain are involved in the family enterprise as writers and illustrators of the Berenstain Bears books.

Stan, who is more religiously knowledgeable (both say that the paintings with biblical themes that they have studied have provided the foundations for their religious learning), taught their sons about both Judaism and Christianity on Sunday mornings at home. "We didn't tell them the bloody, gory stuff," Stan said. Stan proved such a charismatic teacher that friends of Michael and Leo ducked out of Sunday school to sit in on Stan's lectures instead.

The Berenstains have been asked by countless fans if they can expect a Berenstains Hannukah book. Not likely, they said. "There's no way to do it without bringing religion into it," said Stan. Christmas, the Berenstains reason, is popular and widespread enough so that it doesn't get into the murky waters of competing religions. The closest the Berenstains ever got to an explicitly religious book was in "The Berenstain Bears and the Big Question." The cubs ask Mama and Papa Bear about God - his motives and his intentions.

That book ends on an ambiguous note: "I guess God made mostly questions," Papa says.

By arrangement with the Forward