Author Interviews, Book Resources
Jan Berenstain Interview Transcript
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
The authors Jan and Stan Berenstain were interviewed by Scholastic students.
How did you decide on the bears as your characters?
When we decided to do children's books, we had already been writing for adults. We decided to do bears for children for two reasons. We had a zoo-drawing class once a week, and we liked to draw the bears. Once we decided to do books for children, we knew we wanted to do animals. We decided to do bears because bears have always been entertaining - performing bears in circuses and so on.
Also, probably the best-known story for children is the Three Bears, so it was familiar. They're sort of like people; the word is called anthropomorphic, and bears are naturally that way. They stand on two legs, their mothers are very good mothers, and so on. When we visited a class a few years ago and gave that answer, one student asked why we didn't use fish, and our answer was that they aren't enough like people. Another student said well, then, why not monkeys, and our answer was that they are too much like people.
Why did you decide to give them your name?
That wasn't our decision. The first book we did was called The Big Honey Hunt. We didn't call them The Berenstain Bears. Our editor was Dr. Seuss. When we did the second book, it was called The Bike Lesson, and Dr. Seuss put on the cover The Second Adventure of the Berenstain Bears. So it was Dr. Seuss who named them, not us.
Have you had an adventure like those of the bears in your books?
Yes, I can think of a number of books. The Bike Lesson is based on my attempt to teach our first son, when he was about five or six, to ride a bike. There are many others. The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor is based on our experience taking our two sons to the doctor. Many of our books are based on real experiences. One of our books is called The Berenstain Bears' New Baby. That was based on our experience becoming new parents. We already had one son and the other one was on the way. Our son noticed that Jan's lap had gotten a lot smaller. After the baby was born, he sat on his mother's lap again and said, "Momma, you've got your lap back," and that's in that book. So the answer is that most of our books are based on experience - some more than others.
Is Bear Country based on a real town?
Well, in a funny way it is and it isn't. We started doing the Bear books and created the look of Bear Country before we moved to our present home. But the funny thing is, where we live now looks exactly like Bear Country.
What made you change Papa Bear's image?
We haven't changed his image. We do different kinds of books. The first books we did were very simple books, and the emphasis there was to make the stories very simple, and Papa was always the funny character. In some of our later books the stories are based more on everyday events, Papa is not as funny. We've been doing these books for 34 years, or even more, so things are bound to change.
Why are the pictures in The Big Honey Hunt different from the other books?
Stan: That is a very good question. The answer is that we really didn't know how to draw the Bears in the beginning. In addition to that, our editor was Dr. Seuss, and he wanted the Bears to be as funny and comical-looking as possible.
How old are the Berenstain Bears?
Mama is 27 and Papa is 29. Sister Bear is in first grade and Brother Bear is in third. They won't ever get older!
Why won't the bears grow older?
Stan: Because the books are written for children who are about the same age as Sister and Brother Bear. And we think they'll be more interesting and more fun for our audience. We also do Berenstain Bears Chapter Books, and there are older cubs in those books.
What gave you the idea to write the book No Girls Allowed?
That's a good question. Jan, when she was a little girl, was about the only girl who lived on that street. She had two brothers and they did their best to shut her out. But Jan, being a very spirited girl, didn't let them. So that's where that came from.
Why do you start all of your books with a rhyme on the first page?
Jan: Well, the first book we did with a rhyme in it was The Berenstain Bears' New Baby, and I thought it would introduce the story nicely and set the scene.
Stan: It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it still does.
Why is Queenie so nice in the chapter books but not so nice in other books?
Queenie has her own personality, and is like so many of us ÷ sometimes nice and sometimes not so nice.
Do you both write and illustrate?
We both do both. That's always been the case. We drew before we wrote. We met in art school. The writing followed the drawing, and we continue to do both. We think up an idea for a story first, then think up a cover and draw that first. Beyond the covers and titles, we write the story together, then rough out the pictures in a general way.
I generally do the rough sketch, and then Jan does the beautiful drawing on art paper, then we share the job of coloring it.
I understand your first book was done with Dr. Seuss. Did you work with him prior to that book?
We had done a number of adult books before we began doing children's books. When we decided to do a children's book, we had heard that Dr. Seuss had begun a publishing company, so we sent our book to him. That book became The Big Honey Hunt. We ended up doing about 20 books all together with Dr. Seuss, so we worked with him for many years and got to know him very well.
Are the little bear characters anything like you were when you were a kid?
I think so. Sister Bear likes to jump rope and is a lively little girl, just like Jan. I was an avid model airplane builder when I was young, and that's one of Brother Bear's hobbies. I think Brother Bear is a better athlete than I was as a child, although I was very enthusiastic. So yes, I think they are like us. I don't think it was any grand plan, but it's just worked out that way.
What kind of tools do you use to illustrate your books?
We use pencils to begin with. We also use Flair pens, often different colors to color-code the layouts. Once we get past the layout stage, we use India inks and old-fashioned pens where you put the nib in the holder. We don't like some of the new kinds of pens - partly because we're old-fashioned and stuck in our ways, but partly because we think it's important to be able to vary the weight of the lines and you can't do that with the mechanical pens. For coloring, we use a liquid watercolor that comes in bottles, called Dr. Martin's Dyes. They're very clear, very transparent, very bright, and we love them dearly.
What is your favorite book that you wrote?
Jan and I have discussed this. There's a kind of standard answer which is kind of true, which is that our most recent book is our favorite. There's some truth in that, but beyond that there are certain parts of older books that we like - certain pages, certain jokes, certain lines. But your books are very much like your children. I think it's unhealthy to have favorite children, and I think it's unhealthy to have favorite books. Also, we've done over 200 books, so it's hard to remember them all sometimes.
Do you get any of your ideas for books from kids who write to you?
Kids write us with lots of ideas for books. Some are books we've done, and others are ones we're planning to do. We get some funny ideas, too. One funny idea is, "Why don't you have the Bears go to Las Vegas and win the jackpot?"
Where did the idea come from for Mama's New Job?
That book is about ten years old. Many of the people we work with, editors and so on, are working mothers, so we're very aware of that. About that time, feminism was very much in the public eye, and we read a statistic that about half of all the mothers in the United States had jobs as well as being wives and mothers. We thought it was an important subject, and we gave it a shot.
How many of your books were made into movies?
Quite a few, if you count TV movies - about 20 or 30 on television or video. No theatrical movies.
Which honor or award that you've received means the most to you?
The awards we receive directly from children are our favorites.
I read that you did a book about penguins. What was the name of that book and is it still in print?
That's a wonderful question, because after we did our first book for Dr. Seuss, Ted (that was Dr. Seuss's real name) said, "What do you want to do next?"
We said maybe we can do another book about these bears, maybe a series. He said, that's a terrible idea. The worst thing you could possibly do. Doing a series is like having a millstone hung round your neck. Besides, there are too many other bears out there - Yogi Bear, the Chicago Bears; Sendak has a little bear he's doing. Do something as different from bears as possible! Jan and I were a little discouraged, because we had already come to like our bears. On the way home, we tried to figure out what to do - what was as different from bears as could be? In the front of the train was an advertisement that showed a penguin, so I said, "Well, penguins are pretty different from bears," and Jan said, "Yes they are." So we had a date to take our next book to Dr. Seuss in about a month, so we decided to do a book called Nothing Ever Happens at the South Pole. The story is about a little penguin living at the South Pole and someone throws a package into his igloo, and in the package is a diary. The first page says, "Write what happens every day." So the penguin goes walking around, and things happen, but they always happen behind him, so he never sees them. So he went back to his igloo and wrote in his diary, "Nothing ever happens at the South Pole." We did the book and brought it to Dr. Seuss. He said, "This is good. Nobody's doing anything with penguins, but I have to tell you something. The salesmen have your books out on the road and they're selling really well. So maybe you should think about doing a whole series." So that's what we did. That book was never published - we don't even know where it is.
Do you have any other hobbies?
I don't know if you could call them hobbies. I'm a very avid reader, as Jan is. I've just finished rereading all the Horatio Hornblower books, and I love them just as much as I did when I was in my twenties. We have four wonderful grandchildren, and keeping track of them is much more interesting than a hobby. We have two 15-year-old girls, one 13-year-old boy, and one 9-year-old girl. They're all different and they're all fun. Jan and I are also avid sports fans and we follow our Philadelphia teams just as we did when were kids. The Phillies just beat the Mets two in a row.
What do you enjoy most about talking with children about your books?
The experiences aren't quite always what you expect. For example, The Berenstain Bears' New Baby is all about Brother outgrowing his old bed, so he and Papa go out into the woods and chop down a tree to make him a new bed. Meanwhile Mom is home having the new baby. I was reading this book to one little girl and she was very quiet. I wasn't sure she was getting it, so I asked her "What do you think Mama has in her tummy?" and she said "A new bed?" So it isn't always what you expect. On another occasion some neighbors were visiting us with some children, and asked if we would read one of our stories. I read one book where Papa was having all kinds of problems. He seemed to be enjoying the book and thought it was pretty funny. After I finished I asked if he wanted me to read it again, but he said, "No, if you read it again, the same thing will happen all over again." Children are very good about finding mistakes. We get probably thousands of letters, and some of them find mistakes in our books. As some readers know, Sister Bear always wears a pink hairbow. In one book we forgot the hairbow, and we got a letter about it. That proves to us that the children are really paying attention, and that's good.
Will you ever add another bear character?
What a good question! The next book out, which will be out in August is called The Berenstain Bears: Baby Makes Five. There will be a new member of the family. In fact, our publisher has been running a Name the Baby contest. We're going to select a name from the entries and that will be the baby's name. We don't know what it will be yet, but we should know soon. While the family represents the basic characters, we have always added new characters. Cousin Fred is Brother Bear's best friend. There's a bully named Too Tall with a gang who are kind of nasty. There are grandparents. But it's the family that are the central characters. Also, some people consider the tree house almost as a character. I've been told that it's probably the best known residence in children's literature. That's a nice thought!
Did you ever start a book and not finish it?
Actually, no. It sounds like a brag, but we don't start a book unless we're fairly confident that we know where it's going. We often hold off on a book for years until we have the right title or the right story, but we've never started a book and not finished it.
How could children submit a suggestion for a name for the baby?
The winner will be picked April 15, so the deadline is already past, unfortunately. Sorry about that!
Do Brother and Sister Bear have other names besides brother and Sister? That's a question we get asked a lot. The answer is that Sister is Sister's name, Brother is Brother's name. Papa is Papa's name, and Mama is Mama's name.
When we started the series, we had no idea that it would be as long and big a series as it ended up to be. So giving them specific names didn't seem very important. Beyond that, I think we wanted every child to identify with the characters. If we had named the sister Gwendolyn or Ethel, then mostly the Gwendolyns and the Ethels would have identified with them. Those two elements are really the why.
Out of all the characters in all your books, is there one who has become your favorite?
I guess my favorite is Papa Bear because to a great extent he's based on me. He tends to get carried away, as I do. He tends to be a little bit clumsy, as I am. And he has very good intentions, as I do. Now I'm only occasionally as foolish and accident prone as Papa Bear is capable of being, but I do have my moments. I bet you Jan would say Mama Bear, because Mama Bear is based on Jan. Mama Bear is warm and wise and almost perfect, like Jan. I think they are like terrible exaggerations of the two of us.
As children, did either of you daydream a lot?
We drew a lot, and drawing is really exercising your imagination. What is daydreaming but exercising your imagination. We also both read a lot, and reading stimulates your imagination, thinking "What would I do if I were Jim Hawkins and met up with Long John Silver?" I think that's one of the great things about reading, whereas with television you don't have to use your imagination.
How long does it take you to write a book?
Our most popular books are the little books called First Time Books - little paperbacks. It takes a couple of months to create one of those books. What takes the longest is doing the drawing. Those books don't have a lot of words. We enjoy the drawing, but it takes a long time.
Will you ever write a book with all new characters?
I doubt it very much. It's an interesting idea. Maybe we'll write a book about a penguin! But I doubt it.
Do you have any pets?
We haven't had for many years. We live in the country, and we live in an area with lots of animals. On any day, as many as 15 deer will go through our yard. We have squirrels, chipmunks, a very busy bird feeder. When we were young parents, we had pets for our kids - cats, turtles, mice - you name it, we had it, but not lately. Our grandchildren all have pets.
What made you decide to use a tree house for the bear's home?
I wish I had an answer for that! It just seemed as inevitable as the sun coming up in the morning. When we decided to do a children's book, it never occurred to us to have them live anywhere except a tree house. We get a lot of mail that says something like "I wish I could go to Bear Country and live in a tree house with the bears." I guess it's every child's fantasy.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary children's book authors?
Ted (Dr. Seuss) was one of our great favorites. I like Bill Peet, but he's deceased also. One of our great favorites was John Tenniel, who did the illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. Arthur Rackham, a great English children's illustrator, was wonderful. I like Phil Eastman, who wrote Go, Dog. Go! I guess I haven't kept up with the newer authors, we've been too busy working!
How long have you been writing for?
We've been writing pretty much since we were married about 54 years ago, but we weren't writing for children. We were writing for adults. We've both been drawing since we were about 3 or 4 years old.
How long do you plan to continue writing Berenstain Bears books?
We're going to keep on doing it until we get it wrong. That's my standard answer.
Is there anything else you would like to say to your readers?
I'd love to thank them for being interested, and I'd tell them to read as much as you can. Decide on your own what you like to read, but listen to the teachers, too - they have great suggestions. Television's fun, and videos are fun, but nobody feels good about themselves after watching television. After you read a good book, you tend to feel good about yourself.