First, some quick history about the series: the Berenstain Bears were the creation of Stan and Jan Berenstain, which was later carried on by their son, Mike Berenstain. The first Berenstain Bears book, The Big Honey Hunt, was published in 1962 and introduced young readers and their families to the lovable Bear Family: Papa Bear, Mama Pear, Brother Bear (originally named Small Bear), Sister Bear, and eventually Honey Bear who all live in a large tree in Bear Country alongside family and friends. This children’s literary franchise is expansive, to say the least, as it also encompasses chapter books for older readers, a television series, a stage play, toys, and video games.
A typical Berenstain Bears story adhered to the following formula: at least one member of the Bear Family faces a dilemma and is given advice on how to handle it so there is a lesson to be learned. Most of the books’ messages fell into one of two camps: moral messages (i.e. do the right thing, be fair, learn to share, etc.) and safety/health/personal well-being messages (don’t talk to strangers, don’t do drugs, don’t follow the crowd, etc.). As expected, there are critics who condemn the series for being too formulaic, preachy, and saccharine. And while every reader has a right to his or her own opinion, I personally disagree with the criticism.
First, children’s literature – especially for young readers graduating from simple picture books – is formulaic for a reason as it makes the story easier for children to follow along rather than offer a complex plot. Secondly, children’s books’ morals are often overt by telling rather than showing. This is perfectly appropriate for a young audience who isn’t mature enough to detect subtle meanings that show rather than tell. Lastly, there is a difference between a story being warm and charming and one that’s syrupy sweet. The former possesses an inviting tone that welcomes readers in while the latter talks down to, and inadvertently insults, its audience. In my view, the Berenstain Bears books avoid this by making their messages relatable for children in showing how conflicts, combined with the right advice and an application of wisdom, can be resolved.
With that little sidebar out of the way, you can probably tell I have always loved the Berenstain Bears! 😀
Given that this series encompasses a ton of books, I’m only going to highlight some of my favorites out of the 50+ volumes I own. (I tried to organize this list from my most favorite first and so on.)
So sit back and enjoy this trip down memory lane!
The Berenstain Bears Learn about Strangers (1985)
This was one of the first Berenstain Bears books I ever read and I also own a copy of the television episode on VHS. I appreciate how it tackles the topic of strangers without intentionally scaring kids. Granted, that’s Papa Bear’s tactic but Mama Bear takes a different approach by comparing strangers to apples. Some strangers might not look nice on the outside but on the inside they’re perfectly fine, but there are other people who might look good on the outside though on the inside aren’t so good after all. Hence, children need to be perceptive – but not paranoid – because of the few “bad apples” out in the world. This is one of several books in the series to focus on an “appearances can be deceiving” theme, and I think it’s a good one to teach kids as being able to discern the actions and intents of others is one of the stepping stones to developing strong critical thinking skills.
The Berenstain Bears Get Stage Fright (1986)
This brings back memories of when I was in a church children’s choir and participated in their annual Christmas musicals. In my very first one, I was approached by one of the directors at the last minute to fill in for a minor speaking role (the original performer was sick). I agreed and, after that, I usually tried out for some kind of part. My last role was one of the three leads (which included a solo!) and it was very exciting. While I didn’t get as nervous as Sister Bear does, I can certainly relate to the pre-performance jitters. Overall, this was a fun story and the ways Brother Bear teases Sister Bea for her nerves cracked me up – not to mention that, despite his bravado, he, too, isn’t immune to stage fright.
The Berenstain Bears and the Week at Grandma’s (1986)
I love the illustrations of Grandma and Grandpa’s house, especially the stained glass touches, as it makes it feel like a warm, realistic home. This is a sweet story about how sometimes a change of scenery is good for children (as well as you never know what someone older than you might know unless you ask them). I like how Brother and Sister initially have misgivings about spending a week at their grandparents’ home by mentally comparing everything there to the amenities they normally have. But they eventually warm up to their new surroundings. While I, unfortunately, never lived close enough to my grandparents to be able to spend a weekend with them, I did enjoy their visits with my family and of our trips to visit them.
The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Dream (1988)
Gotta love Brother Bear and his obsession with all things Space Grizzlies! Re-reading it now makes me imagine that he’d fit right in with today’s superhero craze. (Can somebody say fan boy?) I’ve always been impressed over how this story explains, in a basic way for children, what dreams are and how what we see, hear, and engage on a daily basis can actually influence what we dream. The best parts are when the cubs’ dreams are analyzed in a way that children can see how their own dreams contain rather mundane elements that, when churned together, create a strange combination that isn’t worth getting scared by.
The Berenstain Bears Go to School (1978)
This book always seemed to calm my nerves when it was time for me to start a new grade during my early years at elementary school. It’s a great encouragement to little ones who, much like Sister in the story, are starting school for the very first time. I think it does a good job of making school seem not so intimidating and, instead, depicts it as a place where learning can be fun. The adults in Sister’s life also are very supportive and help her take baby steps into this new venture in her life. Overall, this was one book in the series that always stood out to me.
The Berenstain Bears Meet Santa Bear (1984)
This book captures everything I loved (and still love!) about Christmas. From decorating, to visiting Santa, to buying presents for family, to finally the Big Day, this book still puts a smile on my face. The illustrations are nicely done, and while the book doesn’t present a Christian message, it still encourages children to not be greedy and to take time to slow down and savor the fun moments of the Christmas season.
The Berenstain Bears and the Drug-Free Zone (1993)
This is one of two Berenstain Bears Big Chapter Books I have (along with The Berenstain Bears and the Nerdy Nephew). Unlike the picture books, this one was longer with chapters (naturally) and had black and white (not color) illustrations. The plot involves a rumor of drugs coming into Bear Country. Brother, Sister, and some of their friends end up trying to solve a mystery where things and certain persons aren’t always what they seem (albeit they do so on their own without the help of police, which is a point some parents might want to be aware of). For kids, it does a good job teaching the “appearances can be deceiving” lesson that the series often tackled as well as a cautionary tale about drugs. It also offered a mystery plot, which was something I hadn’t seen the series do up to that point. Overall, I liked this as a lengthy (for my age at the time) read that, despite its subject matter, never got too dark.
The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation (1989)
This one never failed to crack me up. Story-wise, it’s just like how Clark Griswold (from the National Lampoon Vacation movies) would always plan for the “perfect” vacation/holiday and nothing turned out as he planned or hoped. Yet all the craziness made it more fun and memorable. In this story, the Bear family takes a trip to a lakeside cabin in the mountains, yet it’s not the pristine vacation spot the ads made it seem (so I suppose another lesson to be learned is don’t believe everything you read/see!). In the end, the Bear family makes the best of it and discovers that sometimes things really are funnier in hindsight.