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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.

One thought on “An Interview with Mike Berenstain of the Berenstain Bears”

  • Lynda Edwards

    Thank you for sharing information about the formation of the original Berenstain Bears' books, as well as the later ones with Christian themes. You have renewed my interest in these books. I anticipate a trip to our local Family Christian store soon!

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