Stan Berenstain, 82; With His Wife, Created Popular Series of Children’s Books

Times Staff Writer

Stan Berenstain, who with his wife, Jan, wrote and illustrated the best-selling Berenstain Bears children’s books -- soft-sell morality plays that revel in poking fun at and safely solving the everyday travails of family life -- has died. He was 82.

Berenstain died of complications from cancer Saturday in Bucks County, Pa., said his publisher, HarperCollins Children’s Books.

The more than 200 books published since 1962 have a Seinfeldian quality, because entire volumes are built around ordinary matters -- messy rooms, a visit to the dentist, fear of the dark -- that constitute high drama for the under-7 set.


“They were able to take the real issues of children’s lives and make them entertaining and not preachy,” said Ilene Abramson, director of children’s services at the Los Angeles Public Library. “The books had messages of basic character-building, but they were always done with humor and with that strong sense of family.”

The family of bears in human clothing were simply named Mama, Papa, Brother, Sister and, much later, Baby to capitalize on the “Everybear” concept of the stories, Berenstain once said.

The idea for the series was born in 1960 after Berenstain read a New Yorker magazine profile on a Random House editor, Theodor Geisel, who was launching a line of books for young readers.

The Berenstains sought out the man better known as Dr. Seuss, taking with them what they called “a bad imitation of Ogden Nash.”

Geisel looked at the slim manuscript that would become “The Big Honey Hunt” two years later and said, “This is going to be a great book,” Berenstain told The Times in 1995.

When Geisel, a fan of cinematic plotting, asked the couple to characterize the bears as familiar actors, they compared Papa Bear to Wallace Beery and Brother Bear to Jackie Cooper in the weepy 1931 boxing film “The Champ.”


Without consulting them, Geisel shortened the authors’ names from Stanley and Janice to Stan and Jan to make them rhyme and slapped the phrase “Berenstain Bears” on succeeding covers. The moves were credited with making the books easy to market, and nearly 300 million copies have been sold.

“Stan Berenstain was a man of great humor and a generous spirit. He helped define children’s publishing as we know it today,” Kate Jackson, editor in chief of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said in a statement. “It’s the end of an era.”

Stanley Berenstain was born Sept. 29, 1923, into what he described as a gritty, lower-class Philadelphia family that had been “pogrommed out of the Ukraine.”

When he was growing up, he and his parents, Harry and Rose, lived above an Army-Navy surplus store.

In 1941, on his first day at what is now the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, Berenstain met his future wife when they admired each other’s drawings of classical plaster casts.

Their dating ritual included weekly class visits to the zoo, where they often sketched bears because “no one else wanted to and we could be alone,” Berenstain told the Tampa Tribune in 1999.

They were separated by World War II when Jan went to work as a riveter and Stan served three years in the Army, including doing medical illustrations for a plastic surgeon.

While still an Army corporal, he sold his first cartoon for $35 to the Saturday Review of Literature.

Thirteen days after Berenstain was discharged in 1946, the couple married and promptly embarked on a joint career. Their first piece of furniture was a drawing table.

They didn’t sell a single cartoon for a year. But business picked up after they listened to the editor of the Saturday Evening Post, who told them to stop quoting Shakespeare and start riffing on the absurdity of family life -- burnt dinners, empty toothpaste tubes, bleary-eyed parents.

The second year they sold 154 cartoons.

Soon, they were earning the “astronomical” sum of $1,000 for illustrations that ran on the cover of Collier’s magazine.

In 1956, they began drawing “It’s All in the Family” for McCall’s magazine. The full-page monthly feature of captioned cartoons ran until 1970, then appeared in Good Housekeeping magazine for 20 years.

The feature spawned a series of slice-of-life paperbacks that Stan called “cartoon essays.” They had names to match: “How to Teach Your Children About God Without Actually Scaring Them Out of Their Wits” (1971), “Never Trust Anyone Over 13” (1973).

In recent years, their sons, Leo and Michael, have helped write and illustrate the Berenstain Bears books. They will continue the series with their mother.

The Berenstain empire has expanded to include an animated series on PBS, Game Boy games, stuffed animals, learning videos, compact discs, DVDs, puzzles, coloring books and stage musicals.

The couple often wrote about 10 books a year, mapping out the story line together from their home on three acres about 40 miles from Philadelphia.

Stan usually wrote the first draft, while Jan edited it. The drawings were equally collaborative.

They often admitted that the parent bears reflected their own personalities.

“I was told by a lawyer once that truth is a complete defense. Mama’s perfectionism is about Jan,” Stan told The Times.

He deflected criticism of Papa Bear, who is frequently portrayed as a bit of a dolt, by admitting that the bear’s bullheaded tendencies were all his.

In addition to his wife and sons, Berenstain is survived by a sister, Aline Smith, and four grandchildren.