In Honor of Jan Berenstain

I didn’t grow up with the Berenstain Bears—having been born just a little too early—but I more than made up for that omission in my adult years thanks to an opportunity to spend time with Jan Berenstain, author and illustrator for the hundreds of Bears books. Over their long and productive careers, Jan and her late husband, Stan, had saved a collection of almost every drawing they ever made, every story they ever wrote, and every Berenstain Bears product ever produced. So I felt both honored and thrilled at the invitation to the Berenstain home in the summer of 2009 to pick up a significant donation of artifacts and other historical materials from Jan and her son—and ongoing creative partner—Mike Berenstain.

As a curator, I haven’t heard the magic words “take whatever you like” very often in my career, but the Berenstains demonstrated their generosity with that phrase. So three Strong colleagues and I journeyed to New Hope, Pennsylvania, to Jan Berenstain’s house, located on a quiet country road. We had rented a 26-foot truck and brought boxes, bins, and packing materials to be ready for whatever we would find. While Jan worked in her studio on the latest Bears book, Mike led us to treasure troves of Berenstain Bears items throughout the house, from the basement to the bedrooms. We came back to Rochester with stuffed animals, activity sets, ceramic banks, music boxes, and mugs for the collection of The Strong’s National Museum of Play, ultimately numbering more than 450 objects representing the full range of licensed Bears products through the years.

But the Berenstains had saved more than just products. Jan and Stan had filed away almost every drawing and cartoon they’d ever created, starting with the earliest works from the late 1940s. Their amazing treasure trove continued through their mid-1950s syndicated comic strip Sister and their It’s All in the Family cartoon series, which ran from in McCall’s and then Good Housekeeping between 1956 and 1988. The archive included rough draft copies of initial ideas and documented the creative process on through finished drawings, some with color overlays returned by publishers. The prolific Berenstains also kept individual cartoons, store advertisements, and other promotional materials, along with rough and finished drawings for nearly all of the couple’s approximately 30 pre-Bear book projects. The archive also included early examples of Berenstain Bears drawings and animation cels from 1980s-era Berenstain Bears television specials. Today, thanks to the generosity of the Berenstain family, all these items can be found in the Stan and Jan Berenstain Archive of Cartoon Art in The Strong’s Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, where they are both preserved for future generations and made accessible to scholars and researchers.

Having spent three days in the Berenstains’ home, sharing lunch with them around their kitchen table, I’m especially saddened to learn of Jan Berenstain’s recent passing at the age of 88. During our visit, Jan expressed that she felt lucky that her advancing years hadn’t been any impediment in her career. “In fact,” Jan said, “I only get better at what I do,” referring to her writing and drawing skills, as well as a lifetime’s insights into the realities and humor of human behavior and family life. Fans of the Berenstains’ thousands of cartoons and generations of readers of Berenstain Bears books likely agree with Jan’s humorous and insightful comment. And we all join together in mourning her loss and celebrating her life.