13 Fun Facts About The Berenstain Bears Books

Creators Stan and Jan Berenstain were repped by the same literary agent as Jack Kerouac (‘On the Road’) and Ken Kesey (‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’).
The cover of the book ‘The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies.’
The cover of the book ‘The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies.’ / Random House Books for Young Readers/Amazon (cover), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

With 300-plus titles in print and more than 260 million books sold, the Berenstain Bears are bound to come up in conversation. Here’s how to steer a predictable discussion about teamwork and manners to one on sex and panda discrimination.

The creators of the Berenstain Bears grew up in the same area.

Creators Stanley Berenstain and Janice Grant were born in the same year—1923—and grew up in Philadelphia, but they didn’t meet until 1941, when they began attending the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts.

They sent each other hand-drawn cartoons when they were apart.

During World War II, Stanley served in the Army; because he was blind in one eye, he worked at an army hospital drawing medical images. Janice, meanwhile, worked for the Army Corps of Engineers (as a draftsperson) and as an aircraft riveter. They stayed in touch by sending each other hand-drawn cartoons. After the war, they got married and began working as magazine illustrators right away. The Berenstains knew about teamwork: They wrote together, drew together, and colored the art together—that’s cooperation!

They created the bears after reading about a famous children’s book author.

Theodor Geisel
Theodor Geisel in 1985. / Aaron Rapoport/GettyImages

The Berenstains created their bears after reading a New Yorker profile of a Random House editor named Theodor Geisel—yup, Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel—who was starting a line of children’s books. They worked on their manuscript and illustrations for about two months and enlisted Sterling Lord (who also represented Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey) as their literary agent. At that point, the story was called Freddy Bear’s Spanking; as the Berenstains recalled in their book Down a Sunny Dirt Road, “It told the story of Freddy Bear, who, having misbehaved, attempts to negotiate himself out of a spanking by proposing a series of alternative punishments. After much negotiation with Mama and Papa Bear, he says, ‘Oh, the heck with it. Let’s go ahead with the spanking.’”

Geisel offered some constructive criticism—and praise—during their first meeting.

In their first meeting, Geisel took on the Berenstains’ rhyming verse: “Your scansion is pretty good. But again, it’s too complicated,” he said. “And your line lengths are all over the place. They won’t look good on the page. Try to even them up. Also, you’ve got a few interior rhymes. Let’s leave interior rhymes to Cole Porter and Ogden Nash.”

He closed the meeting with the couple by saying, “Berenstains, I can’t tell you how happy I am to be working with you. I just know we’re going to get a wonderful book.”

Creating the first Berenstain Bears book wasn’t easy.

As the Berenstains recalled in Down a Sunny Dirt Road, after their meeting with Geisel, “We hardly spoke the whole way home. We felt overwhelmed, beat up, abused. No wonder. We'd just gone fifteen rounds with the champ and had been pummeled from pillar to post. ... We didn't even take the Freddy Bear manuscript out of the envelope. We put it away on a high shelf.”

They did eventually take it back off the shelf and went through multiple rounds of revisions, during which the tale became more like a Dr. Seuss story than a Berenstain one. Two of Geisel’s collaborators suggested turning one of the sequences that had made it through all the drafts—a search for honey—into the whole story. The Berenstains started over with that idea in mind, and finally, the first book in the Berenstain Bears series, The Big Honey Hunt, was published in 1962.

They almost did a book about penguins next.

After The Big Honey Hunt, Stan and Jan pitched a series about bears, but Geisel urged them to do something different—to keep going with bears, he said, “would be like having a millstone around your neck.” So they started working on a story about penguins—but when they brought that idea to Geisel, he’d had a change of heart: “[Y]ou know something?” he said. “The salesmen have your ‘Bear’ book out on the road, and it’s being very well received. Did you ever think of doing a whole series on bears?”

Why bears? According to Stanley: “Bears can stand up on their hind legs like people, and they look good in clothes.” (For the record, the Berenstains had zero interest in drawing monkeys.)

Mama and Papa Bear were based on their creators.

Stanley called Mama and Papa Bear “terrible exaggerations” of himself and his wife. “[Papa] tends to get carried away, as I do ... tends to be a little bit clumsy, as I am. And has very good intentions. Mama Bear is warm and wise and almost perfect, like Jan.”

The look of the bears changed after the early books.

The Big Honey Hunt features three bears—Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Small Bear (who would later become Brother Bear after Sister Bear was born)—and their appearances were significantly different than in later books. “We really didn’t know how to draw the Bears in the beginning,” Stan would later explain. “In addition to that, our editor was Dr. Seuss, and he wanted the Bears to be as funny and comical-looking as possible.”

Geisel changed their names for the Berenstain Bears books.

The couple had always been Stanley and Janice, but Geisel shortened their names to Stan and Jan to get that cute, Seuss-like rhyme (he did so without asking). “That's what you call each other,” he reasoned. “And that’s what I call you. Besides, it fits on one line.” He also was the one who decided to call the characters “The Berenstain Bears.”

The Berenstain Bears books took on tough issues.

The Bears have tackled some hard-hitting issues over the years, including peer pressure, stranger danger, and cyber crime. In The Berenstain Bears’ New Neighbors, Papa must overcome his mistrust of the pandas who move in next door.

Stan and Jan Berenstain contributed to books for adults, too.

Although they’re remembered for their bear adventures, the Berenstains also illustrated humor books for adults, including How to Teach Your Children About Sex Without Making a Complete Fool of Yourself.

The books were taken over by Stan and Jan’s son.

The Berenstains’ son Mike inherited their love of drawing. He began working on the books in the 1980s and took over the franchise with his mother when Stan passed away in 2005. Jan died in February 2012.

It’s Berenstain, not Berenstein.

You may have heard of the Mandela Effect, a phenomenon where multiple people remember the same false memory. The Berenstain Bears have fallen victim to it; some readers swear their name is spelled Berenstein, not Berenstain. The confusion might stem from misspellings making it into newspapers: As Gene Brewer, Ph.D., an associate professor in cognitive psychology at Arizona State University, told Mental Floss in 2019, studies conducted in the 1980s revealed that “when students were exposed to misspelled words in an education setting as a way to test their spelling proficiency, the misspelled words got recorded in their memory and interfered with their ability to spell the words correctly in the future.”

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A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2024.