The Books that Made Me: The Berenstain Bears Go To School
by: Shannon Cook
If you’ve been following my series this summer of the children’s books that made me, I hope you’ve enjoyed rediscovering these wonderful books. Scroll back if you’d like to read more. Or just check out your favorites.
I saved the Berenstain Bears for last because I can’t think of a series I love more. Also, my kids are going back to school today, so I felt like I had to talk specifically about The Berenstain Bears Go To School. It’s one I’ve always loved.
I’m embarrassed to admit, I always kind of thought Stan and Jan were siblings rather than a married couple. I never looked it up, but the main two characters in the series are a brother and sister, so I assumed they were writing from their experiences. The fact that their names rhyme also pointed to them having the same parents. Maybe their first meeting went something like this:
“That’s cool because I’m Jan.”
“What do you do?”
“I make cartoons.”
“Wanna get married and write tons of books to help parents and kids deal with situations that are difficult or new?
I’m almost positive that’s how it all started. These books have always been a part of my life. In fact, my parents bought Berenstain Bears New Baby for my brother to prepare for my arrival. I loved watching Papa carve his new little bed to make room for Sister Bear. And when they were finished, Surprise! Mama had the baby while they were gone. That was convenient.
But these stories weren’t always like that. They talked about tough stuff. Like how to deal with a bully, neighbors you didn’t understand, bad habits, friends, and just about anything you may encounter as a family.
The Berenstain Bears Go to School just happened to be published in 1978 (the year I was born.) It’s is the quintessential bears book. It starts with a delightful opening rhyme. If you read these books and skip the rhyme, you’re missing out.
When summertime ends
and the weather turns cool,
most little bears
are ready for school…
Sister is nervous to go to school for the first time, plus she likes her time at home with Mama and Papa. I’m not going to lie, re-reading this book the same week my youngest is going off to kindergarten was tough. Mama takes Sister to see her teacher and she thinks she talks too loud. But she likes the toys and thinks school might be fun, until the next morning when she has to get on the bus. Another boy is nervous too and Sister takes his hand. At school everyone is too loud at first. Slowly though, the kids settle down and they play and have a good time. The next day, Sister is excited to get on the bus.
Here’s what I love about Berenstain Bears books:
As a kid, I found comfort in these stories. I felt like it the bears could handle it, I probably could too. I didn’t look like the bears, but I sure connected with them. I understood what Sister was going through when she felt nervous or jealous or left out. I wanted my room to be organized just like the cubs’ at the end of Messy Room with the labeled boxes and peg board. I truly think my love for IKEA took root when I saw that tidy room for the first time. As an adult, I relate to Mama and Papa too. I want what’s best for my kids and as I navigate parenting, I make mistakes. Ryan doesn’t like it when Papa is being a doofus Dad. He typically changes the story when reading it if Papa is acting too much like the cubs. He’ll say something like, “Then Papa said, (insert wise statement here) because Papa is a responsible adult.” The dad stuff doesn’t bother me too much because it’s a sign of the times. In the 80’s and 90’s, when these books were written, Doofas dads were like 80% of family humor. It’s like doing an archeological dig when Papa’s a doofus rather than a real problem with the books. As a kid, I turned to books to deal with changes and I love that the bears are always good for that.
Open any Berenstain Bears book, and you’ll recognize the art. Reading these books as an adult feels exactly the same as reading them as a kid. They always begin at the house. They establish there’s been some sort of routine, but something is happening that’s not normal. Maybe the cubs are being greedy or Mama and Papa have hired a babysitter. Maybe the cubs are fighting or they tell a lie, but something happens to disturb the peace in their wonderful house in a tree. As readers, we know they’re going to figure it out with the help of Papa and Mama and things will be better by the end of the book. I learned something, and I did it in a comfortable, entertaining way.
They grow with the reader.
This is something I didn’t really know until I wrote this post, but the Berenstain Bears books are for all kinds of readers. They start with board books, cloth books, and even waterproof bath books. Later, you can graduate to lift the flap books, step into reading, and then the beginner books (that’s the typical square paperback). After that, they have Bear Fact Library books and even chapter books! I remember getting a few books in McDonald’s Happy Meals as a kid. At the time, I probably thought, “A book? Dang it! I really wanted a cheap plastic toy that’ll break in ten minutes!” I still have a few of those books by the way.
When I find myself "down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country", I’m a kid again. That’s all it takes. I asked my kids what they like about Berenstain Bear books. My (sometimes too cool) teenage daughter said, “Besides everything?” That’s when I knew I was doing something right in my parenting. Thanks Stan and Jan for giving us the words to say to our kids when they’re dealing with something difficult or new. If the bears can handle it, we probably can too.