I was saddened to recently find out that Jan Berenstain died on Feb. 24 at the age of 88.
Berenstain, who created The Berenstain Bears with her husband, Stan, wrote more than 300 books, a simply incredible amount. And her Berenstain Bears books touched the lives of so many.
“Those bears have helped so many children through so many kinds of challenges that kids face, in such a cheerful and kind of energetic way,” said children’s author Donna Jo Napoli in a story printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer after Jan’s passing.
Berenstain surely will be missed by her many readers.
I was one of them. As a child, I read my share of Berenstain Bears books.
Unfortunately, while those books “helped so many children through so many kinds of challenges that kids face,” I was not one of those children. As a child, I did not find the books helpful AT ALL. In fact, after reading a few of The Berenstain Bears books, I quickly concluded that Jan and Stan Berenstain were out to ruin the life of a perfectly innocent little boy.
The problem was The Berenstain Bears weren’t just out to entertain with their “Cosby”-like family troubles. No, that would be far too benign. The Berenstain Bears also insisted on teaching morals.
On the surface, this was a good thing. To a 6-year-old boy, this was high treason.
I was convinced – CONVINCED – that my mother would have no idea how to parent without the help of Papa Bear and Mama Bear – that if by some miracle those books would just disappear off the face of the planet, I would get to eat as much candy as I want, never have to clean my room and could watch TV until my eyes glazed over like a Krispy Kreme doughnut. It would be a 6-year-old boy’s paradise.
Surely, my mother didn’t know that too much candy was bad before reading “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junkfood.” I mean, who would have told her? Santa Claus? I don’t think so. The man littered my stocking with peppermints and chocolate. He, unlike those meddling bears, was on my side.
The worst of all of the books, however, was “The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist.”
I despised the dentist as a child. I considered dentists to be the sadistic, child-eating trolls of the medical world. (Doctors were wizards with the ability to be either good or evil depending on whether I was getting a shot that day and ophthalmologists were hobbits, living in slightly scary dark places, but ultimately harmless.)
It was my mission as a child to make sure that my mother never saw anything in her daily routine that would remind her that it was probably time for a dental checkup. This was easily achieved for the most part. The TV channel would change during toothpaste commercials. I would quickly start singing a distracting silly song whenever we drove past a dentist office.
But that darn Berenstain Bears book kept popping up – at libraries, in bookstores, in classrooms, at daycare – it literally was everywhere. When I was first taught in Sunday School about God being omnipresent, I thought, “Oh, so he’s like ‘The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist.’ ”
I really hated that book. I still shudder slightly if I pass it for some reason at a bookstore or library.
Looking back, I realize that The Berenstain Bears were just trying to help me out. But try explaining that to a 6-year-old boy. A book might have helped. But sadly, “The Berenstain Bears Are Not Out To Ruin Your Life,” was never published. (Or written for that matter. I would have done it. But I was 6. I still printed my name is Joesph half the time.)
While I didn’t appreciate The Berenstain Bears as a child, going to the dentist ended up being a good thing in my life. I’ve had very few cavities, and I suppose The Berenstain Bears should take a little bit of credit for that.
So, thank you Papa, Mama, Brother and Sister. And you as well, Jan Berenstain. Your bears and I were never friends when I was young. But it turned out they weren’t my enemies, either. They were just looking out for me. Even if I really didn’t want them to.
• Joe Grace is a writer who lives in Chicago with his wife. You can write to him at email@example.com. He realizes there was a fifth, baby bear. But she came around long after he stopped reading the books. So he didn’t feel the need to thank her. Sorry.