The Spooky Old Tree
“Three Little Bears, one with light, one with a stick, and one with a rope! A spooky, old tree! Do they dare go into that spooky old tree? Yes, they dare!” These are the opening lines from one of my favorite children’s books of all time called “The Spooky Old Tree” by Stan and Jan Berenstain. You may have heard of The Berenstain Bears books, but growing up they were some of all all-time favorites! I have many good memories of my mom reading these books to me and my siblings when we were little. Tonight we’re going to learn about Stan and Jan Berenstain, the authors and illustrators of these fun and imaginative stories!
Birth of Jan and Stan Berenstain
Janice Grant and Stanley Berenstain were born in the same year and in the same town — 1923 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were born during The Great Depression, which was a very hard time for most people living in the United States. There was very little work and most families were very poor. Jan and Stan didn’t know each other when they were little, but they had similar interests and both wanted to go to art school. At age 18 they ended up going to the same school and met each other on the first day in a drawing class taught by a teacher named Ms. Sweeney. Stan and Jan instantly liked each other and spent the rest of the year working on art projects together.
When World War II started Stan was able to use his art skills and became an illustrator in the army. An illustrator is someone who draws or does illustrations, which is another word for drawings. However, Jan joined a large group of American women who helped build things for the war effort. She was a riveter. A riveter is someone who uses bolts to attach pieces of metal together. During the war, Stan and Jan were separated, but when the war was over they met up again and were married in 1946.
At first, Stan and Jan were teachers, but they really wanted to be cartoonists and soon found jobs illustrating for different magazines and newspapers. Most of their illustrations were funny.
Berenstain’s First Children’s Book
In 1960 they wrote their first children’s book together. They had lots of ideas about who the subject of their books would be, but eventually, they decided on bears, because they could stand on two feet much like humans. They called them the Berenstain Bear family after their own last name. By this time they had their first son, Leo, and wanted to include some of the funny moments and ups and downs of raising a child. In the books, Papa Bear wore overalls and a plaid shirt and Mama Bear wore a polka-dot dress. And like their own child, they had one lively bear cub!
Their first stories ended up being read by Dr. Seuss, one of the most popular children’s stories authors of all time. Dr. Seuss loved the stories and gave Stan and Jan lots of ideas about how to improve them. Their first big story was called The Big Honey Hunt. After their bear story, they thought they’d switch to a different animal, like a penguin, but the first book did so well they decided to keep writing more. Dr. Seuss made sure the name “The Berenstain Bears” was added to the top of every book and shortened their names from Stanley and Janice to Stan and Jan, without even asking them!
The Bear Family Stories
Over the next several years, Stan and Jan worked from their home in Philadelphia and created hundreds more Berenstain Bears books. They included topics like going to the dentist, making new friends, bullying, messy rooms, honesty, and healthy eating.
Together the bear family lives in a big treehouse, down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country. Later Sister Bear joined the family and finally Honey Bear, the baby bear came. Together they work and play and learn lessons about life. And that was the point of so many of these stories by Stan and Jan, to teach the listener about family life and making good decisions, also called moral stories.
Over the years the Berenstains wrote over 300 books and sold over 260 million copies of their books! Many have also been made into TV movies, television series, and a few computer games.
I mentioned The Spooky Old Tree, you’ll have to check that one out — a few other favorites were Bears in the Night and The Bears’ Vacation. If you’re interested your library should have these or you can find them online.
Stan and Jan have now since passed away, but their sons Leo and Michael have carried on the business. Leo is also an artist and has illustrated many of the new Berenstain Books with his mother, Jan, before she passed away.
Do you like to write or draw? Tonight think of what kind of animal you could pretend to act like a human and tomorrow find a pencil and paper and make your own story. Would you use bears — or think of a new animal you could use like talking monkeys or cats or even walruses! It’s fun to let your imagination run wild, and just like Stan and Jan Berenstain you can come up with wild, creative ideas, teach a good message, and share them with your friends and family!