Bear Necessities
Children’s author Mike Berenstain builds upon the Berenstain Bears’ lasting legacy
by Maria Martino Evans

Despite the death of matriarch Jan Berenstain earlier this year, the tender tales of a bear family that bore remarkable resemblance to her own family—and, of course, her family’s name—have endured. For 50 years she co-authored a series of Berenstain Bears books with her husband, Stan, who died in 2005. The Berenstains’ sons, Leo and Mike, have carried on where their parents left off, even though the sons never planned on being writers.

“I was always collecting insects,” says Mike Berenstain, 60, a graduate of Cheltenham High School. “All through high school I wanted to be a biologist.”

And so he did, while older brother Leo pursued an interest in primate ecology, his career ultimately taking him to Borneo to study monkeys. Eventually the brothers returned to the Philadelphia area … and the family business. Today Leo is involved with the business side of the franchise, while Mike has switched from science to writing and illustrating.

“I wrote nonfiction about sulfur; I wrote stories about castles; I drew funny cartoon characters; I drew a family of chipmunks,” he says of his earlier pursuits. “I was the utility infielder of children’s publishing.”

Born 10 years before the bears, Mike started working with his parents in the late 1980s. One of his first projects was a book about so-called “stranger danger,” which he says became one of the franchise’s most successful books—“the one I’ve gotten more positive feedback about than anything else.”

The Berenstain books are about “family life in its infinite variety,” Mike explains. “All the great novels in history deal with families. Of course, they are usually dysfunctional families. We started out with funny books to help kids learn to read. They evolved to serve a purpose, to have a moral.”
Jan and Stan Berenstain grew up amid poverty during the Great Depression. They met in art school, worked as magazine cartoonists, married and lived in a “rough neighborhood in southwest Philly” above an Army-Navy store—an experience that, according to Mike, “informed everything they and we have done since.”

The family later moved to Bucks County and lived, as they titled their autobiography, “Down a Sunny Dirt Road,” which they took from their characters who lived “in a big tree house down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country.”

“With both parents working full time at home, we grew up in a family shop,” Mike says. “It was an unusual upbringing”—one that included knowing the man known as “Dr. Seuss,” a.k.a. Theodor Geisel, their parents’ friend, mentor and champion. In fact, Geisel, the editor and publisher of Random House’s Beginner Books, liked the characters in the Berenstains’ first book, “The Big Honey Hut,” so much that by their second book, “The Bike Lesson,” in 1964 he had added “Another Adventure of the Berenstain Bears” to the title.

The Berenstains originally had no intention of using their last name, according to Mike, but it stuck, and 50 years and 200 books later, with more than 250 million copies sold in 23 languages, the franchise has grown to include stage shows and a hit series on PBS, and it also inspired two musicals. Groveland Elementary School in Doylestown named its library after the local literary luminaries, and institutions outside of the Philadelphia area have honored them as well; a hospital in Texas has a children’s wing named for the beloved bears.

Publisher HarperCollins is releasing 19 new Berenstain Bears titles this year. The day before his mom had what turned out to be a fatal stroke at their family studio in Solebury, they were working on two new books: “Go Green!” and “We Love Trucks.”

So how much of the bears are in the Berenstains?

“Well, obviously we don’t live in a tree house,” Mike laughs. “But my mom was very calm, and my dad was very excitable, funny and accident prone,” much like their respective bear characters.
With so many partnerships and avenues to benefit children, the Berenstain Bears story continues to unfold. The company also has a theatrical movie script in development with the people behind the Ben Stiller comedy “Night at the Museum.”

In addition, Mike intends to see a longtime dream come true: “I’ve always wanted to do a book for kids going to the hospital or visiting someone there. It’s scary to go the hospital, but a book like that could help them psychologically.”

Because the audience for such a book is limited compared with a book about, say, the first day of school or trying out for a sports team, publishers expressed little interest. So Mike started working with physicians at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to create the book as a nonprofit undertaking. He believes foundations and corporations will get behind it.

Picture this: Brother and sister bear are taking a tour of the hospital. They peer into each room and … well, you’ll just have to wait for the book.