That's the way it is in bear country

December 1, 2005

Anyone who doubts the popularity of the Berenstain Bears amongst the toddler-crowd hasnt been hanging with the toddler crowd. Wildy, rock-star popular, those bears are. Right up there with Dr. Seuss and Curious George in the category of books I spend the most time de-drooling and recovering and reshelving.

Childrens librarianship is just like academic librarianship – the only difference being the specific titles one has to clean the saliva and peanut-butter encrusted fingerprints from. Additionally, toddlers wear diapers and don’t pee in the library. Academic and law school librarians only wish their patrons wouldn’t pee in the stacks. But I digress.

I always liked the Berenstain Bears, but even more so after learning of Charles Krauthammer’s dislike of them:

(link dead or missing)I hate the Berenstain Bears, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer fumed in 1989. The raging offense of the Berenstains is the post-feminist Papa Bear, the Alan Alda of grizzlies, a wimp so passive and fumbling he makes Dagwood Bumstead look like Batman.

In 1996, Mr. Berenstain told The Post: ve gotten unkind letters complaining that we are emasculating the men in the family. The absolute truth is that Papa Bear is based on me.â

One of the Berenstains’ early editors complained that the bear family’s clothing, language and general mores were several decades out of date: s just not that way in the real world.

But that’s the way it is in Bear Country, the Berenstains replied.

I’m just genetically predisposed to like almost anything that man dislikes. I can’t help it.

Today’s Post, in a column that is, oddly enough, titled appreciation, levels quite a lot of criticism at the Bears, especially in it’s conclusion:

The larger questions about the popularity of the Berenstain Bears are more troubling: Is this what we really want from children’s books in the first place, a world filled with scares and neuroses and problems to be toughed out and solved? And if it is, aren’t the Berenstain Bears simply teaching to the test, providing a lesson to be spit back, rather than one lived and understood and embraced?

Where is the warmth, the spirit of discovery and imagination in Bear Country? Stan Berenstain taught a million lessons to children, but subtlety and plain old joy weren’t among them.

Now, even when you account for the repetition factor, which I’ll return to in a moment, it’s probably rare for any child to be raised on a strict diet of Bears books. Sure, Bear Country is a kind of freaky place, but all children’s book environments are a bit off-kilter, the enduring ones, anyway. So kids get variety, and I doubt very much that many of them are scarred from the lessons they learn from the Berenstains.

Kids love repetition. I doubt there’s anyone on the planet who doesn’t know that. But even when a kid is hooked on a specific story, you put multiple kids in the story area at the same time and they run the mommys, daddys or nannys ragged – insisting on hearing as many different stories as possible, often read as fast as possible.

It’s like watching toddler speed-dating.

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