When my brother was young, he adored the Berenstain Bears and I remember reading him dozens of titles about them. They were all paperback books with moral lessons. At the time, they didn’t bother me a bit. Being the book collector (or hoarder, depending on your perspective) in the family, we ended up with that collection of titles like The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble at School. Mushroom and BalletBoy were both immediately drawn to them when they discovered them on the shelves. But now, I loathe them!
They’re almost all dreadful in one way or another. The lessons they want to teach aren’t the lessons I want my kids to walk away with. The solutions the parents come to aren’t the ones I would use, but the way the book presents them implies to the kids you’re reading to that this is the “right” way to cure a bad habit or get over your fear of the dentist.
But it’s worse than that. The stereotypes in the family grate on me constantly. Sister is a little know-it-all. Brother is a good natured but rough and tough boy. Mama is a bossy micromanager who always turns out to be right. Papa is a comic oaf who always turns out to be wrong. They’re the Simpsons, except taken seriously! They even have a baby in the later books, completing the comparison. Of course, don’t get me started on the books that came along later. Thank goodness we don’t own any of them, but if you think The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies was a little preachy, you don’t want to see what happened to the series after Stan and Jan Berenstain’s son took over the franchise. Now most of the books are about God. If I thought it was annoying to have the Berenstain Bears tell me how to deal with birthday parties, I’m sure having them tell me what to think about religion will make me apoplectic.
The horrible thing is that at the same time that my kids rediscovered the books from my younger brother’s childhood collection, they also led me to a whole side of the Berenstain Bears I had never known growing up. They authored some of the best early readers ever written. Titles like He Bear, She Bear, Bears in the Night, and Inside, Outside, Upside Down rival any Dr. Seuss for their cleverness in using the simplest language to tell the most compelling little stories. Until Mo Willems started writing Elephant and Piggie, Old Hat, New Hat may have been the only early reader out there that would give me a genuine laugh.
I have finally called a moratorium on reading the lesson-driven paperback stories by the Berenstains. “Guys,” I tell them every time they ask for one now, “if you want to read that, you’ll have to do it yourself.” If it propels them to read quicker, at least they will have served some positive purpose.