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A Family Affair

The Berenstain Bears transcend generations.



In most families, when a kid's caught eating too much junk food, fighting with siblings, or scoring bad grades, the parents deal with the problem and move on. But for the Berenstain family, a problem sticks around -- in the form of a children's book.

The Berenstain Bears books, now in their 45th year, are based on Stan and Jan Berenstain's real-life experiences rearing their now-grown sons Michael and Leo. The books use a family of bears -- Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Brother Bear, and Sister Bear -- to illustrate simple issues kids face growing up. Books with titles such as The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room and The Berenstain Bears' Trouble with Money provide morals kids can use to guide them through tough or confusing times.

"Growing Up With the Berenstain Bears," a traveling exhibit featuring a kid-sized replica of the Bears' treehouse, runs at the Children's Museum of Memphis through May 13th.

In each room of the treehouse, kids get an educational opportunity. The "When I Grow Up" game in the living room offers children a chance to ponder their futures. They can role-play in the kitchen, pretending to prepare meals for the bear family. Outside the house, they can challenge their fears by exploring Skull Rock.

"We've done a number of exhibits, but those were mostly art hanging on a wall," says Michael Berenstain, who now writes and illustrates the books with his mother. "This is the only one we've done where kids can get involved and experience the world they know from the books."

Michael's parents published their first book in 1962, after presenting the idea to Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. The Berenstains were working as magazine cartoonists when they had the idea for a humorous children's book based on family life. Geisel loved the idea of using bears to tell the story, and he served as their editor throughout the 1970s.

Children interact with the Berenstain Bears exhibit
  • Children interact with the Berenstain Bears exhibit

"The reason they chose bears is because you can have them stand on their hind legs and they look good in clothes," Michael says. "They're animals, but they remind us of ourselves."

The series became immensely popular in the 1980s, and the Berenstains had to put out several books a year to keep up with demand. To date, there are more than 200 Berenstain Bears books, about 125 of which are still in print.

Growing up as an inspiration for a children's book seemed like a perfectly normal thing for Mike and Leo.

"It was integrated into how the family operated," Michael says. "I didn't really give it any thought. It wasn't until later that I realized it was unusual."

The books were so ingrained in his life that Michael joined the family business about 15 years ago. After attending art school and spending some time as a free-lance artist, he began helping his parents illustrate the books.

"As there became more and more demand, my parents were getting into situations where they couldn't finish a book," Michael says. "So I'd take the spill-over. Gradually, it got to be so involved that it took over my life."

These days, Michael does all the writing and shares illustration duties with his mother. His father died last year. Leo handles the business end of things.

Now with three kids of his own -- ages 22, 19, and 15 -- Michael draws upon his own experiences when designing storylines. He also draws from his brother's experience with his two kids.

"We did a book last year called The Berenstain Bears Go on a Ghost Walk. They didn't make schools or buildings into haunted houses when I was a kid," says Berenstain. "But my kids did that, and all the funny circumstances surrounding that inspired a book."

Michael attributes the series' enduring popularity to the simple, child-friendly humor, rich characters, and complex artwork.

"The subject matter has evolved over the years," Michael says. "But we deal with it in an entertaining way. We try to make the books fun. We try to make the artwork a rewarding experience for the kids with a lot of color, tonality, and complex scenes."

"Growing Up With the Berenstain Bears" at the Children'sMuseum of Memphis through May 13th

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