Salon Magazine

Are the Berenstain Bears just lowbrow morality tales, or have they crudely tapped into what contemporary kids think of the average dad?

"Mothers Who Think Column" of Salon Magazine
February 2, 1999

If I were a dad, I'd ban the Berenstain Bears from my house.

But I was a new mom, and I let them in. I started getting them for my now 13-year-old daughter when she was 3. She read and collected Berenstain Bears books all the way up to fourth grade, and then her little sister picked up the mantle. That little sister is now in fourth grade, and still says she likes the Berenstain Bears "because they are funny."

These ubiquitous little books are used as morality lessons not only in homes but also in schools, hospitals and just about anywhere else modern Aesop's fables are called for. Each book in the collection, which numbers over 50, features Mama, Papa, Brother and Sister Berenstain grappling with issues that concern kids everywhere: bullies, bad dreams, messy rooms, stress, "the gimmes," grades. The bears themselves are uninspired, garish cartoons; the narratives are wordy, with hokey rhyme schemes, predictable dialogue and pat, oversimplified solutions. But what is really irksome about the Berenstain Bears is that, in at least half of the books, Papa has to learn the lesson at hand as badly as the kids do. In fact, he's sometimes the most flagrant offender. Savvy parents I know hate the Berenstain Bears, but buy the books anyway -- kids clamor for them. Any reading is good, right?

Worldwide, all those dog-eared collections add up to 220 million books in print, and the series continues to register on Publishers Weekly's list of the bestselling books of all time. At only $3.25 for a paperback, they're cheap enough to add to the checkout pile without much thought when a kid grabs one off the "collect them all!" rack. They've been made into Living Books CD-ROMs and, of course, the bears have a Web site, which was named the best family site by the Web Marketing Association and was nominated, most appropriately, for a WWW "eye candy" award in 1998. (On the site, Papa retains a shred of self-respect: He's off fishing for some salmon so that Mama can cook their favorite dish. But a descriptive caption also reads that "he's often wrong but never in doubt.") Libraries put the frumpily dressed beasts on their summer reading lists because they know kids will read them. Newspaper articles tout them in living sections for those times when a family is moving, going to the dentist or someone is too close to drugs. Pediatric Nursing Journal even recommends "the new baby" book for dealing with sibling issues, and sure enough, when I was expecting my second, the midwife read it to my older daughter in the preparation class. Even the children's librarian at the Library of Congress gives the Berenstain Bears rave reviews.

The comic relief that my daughter and other kids find is provided by worst-kid-of-them-all Papa Bear. Many a master of kiddie lit -- Roald Dahl comes to mind -- has used parents as villains or as objects of humorous ridicule, but there's something about Papa Bear immersed in this whole lowbrow package that is especially offensive. In every book, a problem is laid out -- the cubs watch too much TV or eat too many sweets, to name the premises behind two continuous bestsellers. In these particular stories, Mama formulates a plan to steer the kids toward better behavior, and Papa turns out to be the biggest culprit. (He's caught sneaking into the candy stash even after a healthy eating routine is instituted, or he's the only one who goes back to watching the TV all day after the rest of the family has learned to appreciate fresh air and knitting following a week-long ban by Mama.) Then, in every book, the conflict is all tied up neatly somehow. In some of the books, Papa merely stays on the outskirts of the "domestic" problem until Mama is desperate for some back-up or just resorts to a time-tested meltdown. Once in a rare while it's actually Papa who knows best, but the books that seem to always come out at bedtime are the ones in which Papa doesn't have a clue.