Tag Archives: Kids Books

An Interview with Mike Berenstain of the Berenstain Bears

Q: How did the Berenstain Bears get their start?

Stan Berenstain and Jan Grant were both born in Philadelphia in 1923. These talented artists met in art school in 1941 and were married several years later. They began joint careers in art as a professional cartoonist team, creating for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. But as time went on and they began their family, Jan and Stan became consumers of children’s books. Their interest piqued, they decided to try their hand at creating a children’s book of their own. Under the editorial and publishing guidance of Theodore Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), this first book—The Big Honey Hunt—was released in 1962 and success followed. As the husband and wife team, The Berenstains, they created about twenty books with Geisel, and went on to produce about two hundred more over the next forty plus years.

Q: How did you become involved in the family business?

Because of the huge success of these family-life themed books about a family of bears, Stan and Jan grew too busy to keep up with the demand for more and more titles. So in the late 1980s my parents put out a call for some assistance. I had always loved to draw and had gone to the same art school as my parents. I was working as a children’s author and illustrator at the time. So, when they began asking me for help, it seemed very natural for me to get involved. Having grown up with the Berenstain Bears I viewed them as a part of myself and I wanted to be involved with their ongoing artistic development.

Integrating my own work into the Berenstain Bears style was not without its challenges—in fact, it was hard. But as I gained experience, this father-mother-son partnership began to work. I learned more and more about illustrating and writing Berenstain Bears books until, to an outsider, our work couldn’t be told apart. We created dozens of books together until my father’s death in 2005. My mother and I continued to create new Berenstain Bears books, collaborating on the illustrations while I took on the writing. We worked together in this way until her death in 2012.

And the Berenstain Bears go on! I am still actively exploring Bear Country—a fictional but recognizable place where millions of children have laughed and learned and done a little growing up. It’s a good place to be.

Q: I understand you have a faith-based series of Berenstain Bears books with Zonderkidz. How did the Living Lights brand come about?

In 2004, after forty years of publishing with Random House, we made a move to a new publishing home at HarperCollins. Their expanded and imaginative new line of Berenstain Bears books was immediately successful and has grown by leaps and bounds ever since.

At about the same time we were moving from Random House to HarperCollins, my men’s group at church was reading the then recently published, A Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren. I was aware that this spiritual blockbuster was published by the HarperCollins Zondervan division. I also knew their children’s subdivision, Zonderkidz, was a powerhouse in the industry. A cartoon lightbulb went off over my head. Clearly, a guiding hand directing me toward a purpose-driven goal—in this case, the creation of a series of Christian-themed Berenstain Bears books.

So, with my parent’s help, I developed the concept of Living Lights books. Everyone at Zondervan enthusiastically got on board and the first four titles were launched with great success in the fall of 2008. The line now has over seventy-five titles with many more in the pipeline and annual sales at 1.5 million copies and growing.

Q: Are there any fun facts about the Berenstain Bears or you and your family that you’d like to share?

This is, perhaps, a good point at which to clear up a confusion about our last name. No, it is not Berenstein, Bernstein, or Bearenstein. “Berenstain” is pronounced as it is spelled—Beh-ren-stane as in “coffee stain” or “ink stain” or “grape juice stain.”

Exactly how this spelling came about, we don’t really know. It’s been spelled that way ever since my great grandparents got off the boat in New York in the 1880s. Perhaps it was just a misprint by a weary immigration officer. Or maybe he was trying to phonetically spell “Bernstein” as pronounced with a heavily Ukrainian-tinged accent.

Another fact is that the Bear family is not just in print books. Over the last fifty years Mama, Papa, Brother, Sister, Honey, their friends and family in Bear Country have spread out into other media and forms: three television series, four stage shows, amusement park attractions, museum exhibits, websites, DVDs, apps, toys, games, puzzles, and juice boxes are just a few of the places you can find the Bears visiting.

Thank you for answering some questions about the Berenstain Bears, Mike! God bless you!

I feel infinitely blessed to have been a part of this—the Berenstain Bears adventures—and very thankful to have been used for the Lord’s work in this way. In the words of the beautiful hymn, “So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on.”

I also very much appreciate the role my friends at Family Christian have played in doing this work. Our partnership in making the Berenstain Bears Living Lights series available to all our readers in the Christian community has been an essential part of our mission to help families in raising happy, healthy, and faithful children. Thank you very much and God bless you.

What Is It About Small Children?

Have you noticed the super powers small children wield?

I was riding the NYC subway one morning, when the doors opened and into the car walked a little child.

She was maybe 2.

Instantly, all of us—these defended New Yorkers, all avoiding eye contact, all guarding our space—were transformed. We smiled at her. At her mother. At each other.

Her gentleness disarmed us. Barriers of race and age and status vanished.

She changed everything.

When people asked Jesus, “Who’s the greatest in your Kingdom?” Jesus showed them a little child and said, “Become like this little child.”

It’s not always all about what we teach children.

It’s about what they teach us.

I’ve learned that from writing for children. Writing for children keeps you honest. You have to dig deeper. Work harder. Understand it better. Your job is to distill—to take the profound and make it simple enough for a child to understand.

When I was writing THE JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE, I couldn’t rely on jargon. A little child has no concept of what sin is, for instance. I had to find other ways to describe it. I wrote that: sin is not just about breaking the rules, it’s breaking God’s heart; it’s like poison that makes your heart sick and stops it from working properly; it’s like running away from God and hiding in the shadows.

Writing for children demands nothing short of excellence.

The funny thing is—if you write with the excellence that children deserve you reach everyone. C S Lewis said: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

Excellence, it turns out, is the most inclusive thing.

THE JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE has broken out of the boundaries typical for a children’s bible storybook—read by college students, theologians, pastors, couples; read in schools, prisons, old people’s homes. (It’s so popular with adults that we have published their own edition: THE STORY OF GOD’S LOVE FOR YOU.)

I think it has something to do with that place inside of us all that remains a child still, the place God loves to speak to us—the place where we are undefended, humble, open to wonder. Open him. The place that tiny child spoke to us all, in that NYC subway car that morning.

In THE JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE I captured the plotline of the Bible. As adults when do we ever hear that plotline? Even if we go to church regularly, we may never hear the whole story in one sitting.

But when you distill the story down so that you can read it in one sitting, immediately it is startling. Because most of us think we know what the Bible is about—and it’s not good. We think it’s a book of rules you follow so God will love you. Or a book of heroes you copy so God will love you.

But it’s none of those things.

It’s most of all a Story.

The Story Of a God who breaks into History and comes down to rescue his children. A God who moves heaven and earth to be near them, to love them—though it would cost him everything.

The Story of a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. The Story of a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne—everything—to rescue the one he loves.

The Bible is simply this: THE STORY OF GOD’S LOVE FOR YOU.

And I don’t know anyone—young or old—who doesn’t need to hear that story.

Sally Lloyd-Jones is a New York Times bestselling author whose books include: Thoughts To Make Your Heart Sing, a children’s devotional which won the ECPA Christian Book of The Year award in adult inspiration, and The Jesus Storybook Bible, now available in a format for adults with a new design and title, The Story of God’s Love for You. Sally also has a new picture book coming this spring, Baby Wren and the Great Gift.