December 02, 2005,
"I hate the Berenstain Bears,” wrote Charles Krauthammer 16 years ago. “I know I speak for thousands, perhaps millions of other parents who share my hostility to these lumbering cuddlies.”
Maybe Krauthammer is right, and millions of parents really do hate the Berenstain Bears, whose co-creator, Stan Berenstain, passed away last weekend at the age of 82.
Yet there can be no denying that the wee folk love them and that their parents, at the very least, have purchased mountainous piles of Berenstain Bears books: 260 million, by one recent estimate. That’s a little bit more than the total number of Harry Potter books that are said to be in print. Granted, the Berenstain Bears have been around a lot longer since The Big Honey Hunt was published in 1962 but by any standard, 260 million is an impressive figure. Hatred doesn’t lead to that kind of success.
I’m no expert on the Berenstain Bears. Who could be? There are some 250 books in the series (plus a TV show). The books follow a rough formula as they cover the trials and tribulations of four bear characters: “Father” is a well-meaning goofball, “Mother” is full of common sense, and “Brother” and “Sister” are quarreling siblings. Most of the stories aim to teach some life lesson. The titles tell all: The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners, The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers, The Berenstain Bears Go To School, and so on.
My family owns about half a dozen Berenstain Bears books. The only one I really love is The Bike Lesson, in part because I remember my grandfather reading it to me. Parental nostalgia is of course a major force in the kid-lit market and explains much of the enduring success of Dr. Seuss, Curious George, and a host of other brand-name authors and characters.
From what I can tell, the quality of the Berenstain Bears books varies dramatically. The Bike Lesson moves along at a crisp pace and the writing is full of rhythm. It is a great book to read aloud. There are some moments of real humor. It also tries to instruct. My children may ignore its warning not to ride bikes through puddles, but I’m fairly convinced that repeated readings successfully taught one of my kids the difference between left and right.
Another title in my house is The Berenstain Bears Go Out for the Team. It’s about coping with the stress of baseball tryouts. I don’t like it nearly as much as The Bike Lesson: The all-prose writing is flat by comparison, there’s little humor, and one part pays homage to the nauseating pieties of political correctness. Brother expresses his ultimate nightmare: “The worst thing that can happen is if Sis makes the team and I don’t.” This is of course a very understandable fear for a young boy who competes constantly with his little sister over everything from parental attention to the daily backyard ballgame. So how does Sister respond? “I consider that a sexist remark!” she snaps.
First of all, kids don’t talk that way. Second, we shouldn’t want them to talk that way. Third, this is an authentic dilemma of boyhood and it can’t be papered over by feminist pabulum about boys and girls being no different from each other. At least Mother, overhearing this exchange, chimes in and defends her son: “After all, Brother is older than you and he’s very proud of his baseball ability.” Despite this ninth-inning save, I’ve never read Sister’s line to my kids exactly as it was written. The last thing I need is my kindergarten daughter asking, “Daddy, what’s sexism?”
So although many of the books appear to have their didactic uses, they need to be selected and read with care. A friend recently informed me that that Old Hat New Hat is “among the most conservative children’s books of all time.” Hearing this, I dashed off to my local library, checked out a copy, and read it to one of my kids the other night. And yes, its theme is deeply conservative.
Want to use bedtime stories to teach conservative values? You could crack open a copy of The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk, and review the “six canons of conservative thought.” One of them states:
Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.
Wise and well put and guaranteed to put your children to sleep, if they don’t start squawking for a Berenstain Bears book instead.
Alternately, you could go straight to Old Hat New Hat. In it, Father visits a hat shop with the intention of replacing his old hat. He tries out a bunch of new hats, but each one has a problem: It’s too big, too small, too flat, too tall, too loose, too tight, too heavy, too light, too red, too dotty, too blue, too spotty, too fancy, too frilly, too shiny, too silly, too beady, too bumpy, too leafy, too lumpy, too twisty, too twirly, too wrinkly, too curly, too holey, too patchy, too feathery, too scratchy, too crooked, too straight, or too pointed.
If you made it through that last sentence, then you’ve practically read the whole book. In the end, of course, Father decides that his old hat is “Just right!” He sticks with the tried and true. As Kirk might say, he practices prudence.
Memo to Charles Krauthammer: If you’re looking for a last-minute holiday gift for a little one, you could do a lot worse Old Hat New Hat. The kid will love it, and you won’t hate it.
John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France He is author of the upcoming A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..