Late last October, I found myself looking for a children’s book about Thanksgiving, something to introduce my two-and-half year old daughter to the approaching holiday. Owing to a surprising dearth of children’s literature about this cherished autumn feast, I wound up with The Berenstain Bears Give Thanks.
Here’s what happens in the book: Papa Bear has been doing work for a local farmer, who pays with a live turkey. Sister Bear adopts the turkey as a pet and refuses to eat turkey at Thanksgiving. The family relents and eats fish for Thanksgiving instead.
Give Thanks is part of the Berenstain’s “Living Lights” series, a subdivision of Berenstain country in which lessons about God are imparted. I have no idea why the Berenstain God approves the eating of fish but not turkey on Thanksgiving. But I do know that the last thing a parent of a toddler needs is literary and faith-based encouragement for picky eating.
After just a few doses of that finicky Sister Bear’s behavior, my daughter arrived at her grandparents’ home for Thanksgiving with a driving passion against eating turkey. To her, the main point of the holiday appeared to be about avoiding the consumption of turkey, as it was for Sister Bear. For all I know, her two-year-old theology thought God hated turkey eaters. Thanks, Berenstains!
Berenstains will infiltrate your life in a number of ways. A well-meaning friend brings a Berenstain Bears book to a birthday party. Your mother in-law visits with a well-worn copy from your spouse’s childhood library. Perhaps you pick up one of the Berenstain books because of the relevance of its theme.
This is one of the Berenstain Book Industrial Complex’s tricks: there are hundreds of titles, one for almost any occasion: a Valentine’s Day book, a first-day-at-school book, a budget-cuts-shutting-down-a-school-playground book, even a neighborhood-racial-integration book.
Since you are not an imbecile, you are initially put off by the hideous cover. It is sure to feature four or five members of the Berenstain family—all absurdly and insultingly ugly. Mama Bear is wearing a hat or, more commonly, a bonnet—a bonnet!—and a dress that looks like it was smuggled off the grounds of a breakaway post-Mormon polygamist cult. Brother Bear and Sister Bear are identical except for their clothes—blue slacks for Brother, some hideous pink romper for Sister. Papa Bear somehow wears overalls all of the time. Honey Bear, the baby of the family introduced in 2000, seems to be thrown in as an afterthought—which, in fact, she was.
Open the book and the situation is no better. The illustrations would be dull if the colors were not so garish. The bears typically stand around in wooden poses with not a suggestion of dynamism or movement. Their faces bear no indication of thought or emotional presence, unless a grin or grimace counts towards such a thing. Not a hint of charm or whimsy or technique redeems any of the art. The bears are devoid of wit. It’s a wonder anyone would inflict these pictures on a story that someone had actually taken the time to write.
At this point, if you are lucky or particularly wise, you will have set aside the Berenstain Bears. Preferably far from home, somewhere it will never be discovered by your offspring. If you are unlucky or unwise, the book will find its way into the proximity of your child. You will be asked to read the book. This is your last chance. You must refuse to read it. Do anything but read it. Suggest a different book. Go out to the park. Resort to declaring it ice cream time, if you must. But do not read the Berenstain Bears to a child.
Reading the book will reveal that the story is—unbelievably—worse than the art. The art merely betrayed lack of thoughtfulness. But the story is to thought as a black hole is to starlight. Where the art lacked action, the plot is grindingly dull. Where the drawings lacked whimsy, the text reads as if it were written under rigid orders to avoid creativity. There are no jokes that are funny. No surprises that are unexpected. It’s all wooden grins and grimaces.
As a parent, you know what is likely to follow: you will be required to read the book over and over. Your child will demand it at naptime, at bedtime, whenever his or her day becomes just slow enough to remember that somewhere in the house there is a book about bears. Time and time again, you will spend precious minutes with your child—time you should rightfully be cherishing—resentfully reading the worst children’s books ever written.
The drudgery stems from the generic characters. As the official Berenstain Bears website puts it, the bears’ names were chosen to “emphasize their archetypical roles in the family.” But that fancy word “archetype” is wishful thinking. They are more like half-conceived types. The bear children are neither childlike or childish—they are likeish. Mama and Papa and Honey are likeish too. They are approximations of abstractions. To call the Berenstains anthropomorphized bears insults both humans and bears.
The incessant moral hectoring makes the dullness ever more excruciating. Each plot is organized around the relentless pursuit of a life lesson: Don’t be mean to your brother, mind your parents, wear your helmet and kneepads while skateboarding, don’t eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Fine enough advice, except for the weird turkey thing, but it is rendered tedious by the lack of imagination with which the themes are introduced, explored and resolved. It’s like watching a train wreck that you see coming a mile away—except there is no wreck. Just a train reliably pulling into station after station after station. The Berenstain books are the train spotting of children’s literature.
Most insidious is the Berenstain empire’s cleverness in co-opting the otherwise unassailable canon of bear books for children, at whose pinnacle sits A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. The Berenstains are clearly derivative of the three bears encountered by Goldilocks. (Brother Bear was originally called Little Bear—and Sister Bear wasn’t introduced until later.) Don Freeman’s Corduroy tells the sweet tale of a stuffed bear looking for a home. Paddington Bear stows aboard a ship from Peru to London.
But the Berenstain series repudiates this proud tradition’s central tenet: that a book can be wonderful for parents and children. The franchise seems founded upon the almost anti-literary idea that children must be taught early reading through books whose art and narrative make them unbearable to read. Sure, kids may like them—but kids will drink detergent if you leave it in a cup placed on a low table. They aren’t the best judges.
Despite the dreadfulness of these novellas, they have been selling for 50 years, originally blessed by none other than Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. A few of the earliest installments, especially those rewritten in rhyme like the series-launching Big Honey Hunt, are admittedly pleasant reads. Not great, but good enough if you don’t have a Milne or Freeman around. But in short order, the books went terribly wrong. My research into the Berenstain oeuvre confirms that they have been awful for decades.
Perhaps we get the literature we deserve. But surely the delivery of just deserts has constitutional limits, I hope. Because even the most annoying parents among us should be spared these Bears.
John Carney is a senior editor at CNBC, where his Wall Street coverage can be read at the NetNet blog.