The Berenstain Bears were created by the husband and wife team of Stan and Jan Berenstain. More than two decades after their first children's book, Stan and Jan's son Mike began collaborating with his parents on the Berenstain Bears books. Since Stan's death in 2005, Jan and Mike have continued to write and illustrate new Berenstain Bears books.
The Berenstain Bears books have delighted two generations in our family: our children and grandchildren. While the books tackle some serious subjects, like teasing and stranger-danger, they are also funny. The Berenstain Bears books are about a family with two children. This human family is portrayed by four engaging bears: Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Sister Bear and Brother Bear. Papa Bear, sometimes acts a bit goofy, but he has a fierce love for his family; Mama Bear is the stabilizing force in the family, and the two cubs and their interaction may well remind you of your own children.
I jumped at the chance to do an email interview with Jan and Mike Berenstain because I was eager to learn more about their books and how they go about creating them. After emailing back and forth, I completed the interview in early May 2007. The questions I asked are ones my grandchildren and I had wondered about. Let me know if they are the same questions you would have asked.
The Development of the Berenstain BearsQ. Jan, did you start out writing books about the Berenstain Bears or did you write other children's books first?
A. Stan and I began as magazine cartoonists doing cartoons about kids and then began to do books for kids. The first Berenstain Bears book, The Big Honey Hunt (1962) was our first children's book. Mike started as a children's illustrator and author in the 1970's, creating about thirty children's books on various themes and joined us in the late 1980's creating Berenstain Bears books. Since Stan’s death in 2005, Mike and I have continued to create these books.
Q. Mike, how did you prepare for your role?
A. I attended the same art schools as my parents, the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, studying painting and illustration.
Q. Jan, how did you get the idea to write about families using a family of bears to portray a human family?
A. The reason we did books about bears was because bears can stand up on their hind legs like people and they look good in clothes.
The Writing and Illustrating Process for the Berenstain Bears BooksQ. Jan, did you and Stan both come up with the stories or was there a strict division of labor between writing and illustration?
A. Stan and I (and later Mike) always worked together on every aspect of the books. We all were and are illustrators and authors.
Q. Mike, what process do the two of you go through in creating a Berenstain Bears books?
A. First we talk and come up with a subject and a title. Then, usually, I write a manuscript which we review together. Then I make revisions. This is submitted to our publisher, HarperCollins. If they accept it they may make suggestions which we (my mother and I) discuss and I make further revisions.
Then we decide who is going to do what on the illustrations. This is just a matter of convenience--who has the time available when the book is due. The different stages of illustration may be done entirely by one of us or we may trade the book back and forth for each stage. The stages are: 1. Rough sketches/layouts which are submitted to the publisher for suggestions. 2. Tracing in pencil onto illustration board. 3. Line inking with pen and India ink. 3. Color with watercolor.
Q. Jan, who came up with the notion of the Berenstain Bears First Time series?
A. 1st Time books was an idea that Stan and I came up with jointly around 1980 in response to the huge popularity of The Berenstain Bears' New Baby and The Berenstain Bears Go to School. Since people liked these books so much, it seemed natural to do a series about children's first time experiences.
Q. Jan, how many Berenstain Bears books are there? What's the total number sold? Have they been sold in other countries?
A. We have created over 200 Berenstain Bears titles. About 120 of these are in print and in distribution. We currently sell about 2.5 million per year in North America. Total sales since the series inception are over 250 million. Many editions have been and continue to be published in translation in other countries, currently Chinese and Arabic editions are examples.
Q. Mike, when did you realize the connection between the Berenstain Bears books and your parents?
A. From the moment of their creation--I was 10 when the first books were published. I very clearly remember watching them working on the first sketches and rough versions.
Q. Mike, are your siblings involved? What atttacted you to the Berenstain Bears?
A. My older brother Leo is involved with the business side of our work. Leo is the model for Brother Bear. I, being the younger sibling, must be Sister Bear. I have always loved the characters. They remind me so much of my own family growing up, both in the characters' personalities (my father and mother really were a lot like Papa and Mama Bear) but also my own childhood when I watched the first Berenstain Bear book coming to life.
Q. Mike and Jan, do you hear from a lot of parents and children about the books? What kinds of things do they tell you about the impact of your books?
A. We get an enormous amount of feedback from kids and parents both in mail and e-mail. They often tell us that they identify with the books so strongly that they call each other "Papa", "Mama", "Sister" and "Brother Bear."