Some of my best childhood memories are connected with books my dad read to us for bedtime stories. I remember borrowing library books he liked as much as my brothers and I—books by Bill Peet, Stan and Jan Berenstain, Dr. Seuss. As I’ve started reading stories to my own daughter, I find myself returning to those old favourites and rediscovering why I liked them so much.
I was shocked, however, when I picked up one Berenstain Bear book Sunshine found on her bookshelf. I began reading it to her with pleasant memories of my dad reading to me; by the time I finished, I was troubled with the image of Papa Bear as a big buffoon who couldn’t do anything as well as his cubs.
In Ready, Get Set, Go!, Mama Bear serves as timekeeper and coach while Brother, Sister, and Papa Bear compete against each other. Brother and Sister can dive deeper, run faster, climb higher; the only thing Papa does best is sleep longest.
As I thought about that, I realized that generally, in the series, Papa Bear isn’t the smartest bear in the house (at least in my memories). I began wondering why I would want to read a book to my daughters that disparages dads. I certainly don’t want them to associate their dad with Papa Bear; I want them to look up to and admire him, just as I did with my dad. How do I foster that attitude when some of their books are presenting a different picture?
As I did some research on this question, I discovered many other parents and thinkers have questioned the message of the Berestain Bear family. While the books deliver morals and nice pictures (some say “too many morals” and “cheesy pictures”), several writers have called the Berenstains out for creating an anti-dad series.
Then, in an obituary for Stan Berenstain, I found Stan’s answer to these critics: “We’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.”
I can understand self-deprecating humour—but when your books become so popular that they sell more copies than Harry Potter, that image becomes universalized. Yet maybe it’s starting to change. Over the years, the Berenstain Bears have undergone a facelift (one of Sunshine’s DVD uses the older style of animation) and now Mike Berenstain, writing with his mother Jan, is producing a new series of Bible-inspired Berenstain Bears like Blessed Are the Peacemakers and The Biggest Brag.
Sunshine has two Berenstain Bear DVDs and in the newer DVD, Papa Bear is a more admirable figure. He learns to bake apple pies and dispenses some discipline—even though he falls behind on his taxes while Brother Bear is falling behind on his homework, so that they have to catch up together. Perhaps that’s a more realistic picture of a dad as a man who makes mistakes yet still provides his family with leadership and a good example.