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Posts Tagged ‘Stan & Jan Berenstain’

The Berenstain Bears in the Freaky Funhouse

Posted by Tracy Poff on September 3, 2011

It’s summer, and Brother and Sister Bear, Cousin Fred, and Queenie McBear can’t agree on what to do. Luckily for them, the circus comes to town. In order to raise money for a new hospital wing, Ralph Ripoff has asked his friend, Captain Billy, to bring his circus to town, and share the profits with Dr. Gert Grizzly, for the hospital. But something seems crooked about this circus. Will the cubs uncover the truth about the circus and save the new hospital wing, or will they be sleeping with the fishes?

The Berenstain Bears in the Freaky Funhouse by Stan and Jan Berenstain is a children’s chapter book starring the Berenstain Bears. Unlike the picture books, which feature full-page, full-color illustrations, this book features mostly smaller, black-and-white illustrations, plus a few full-page, black-and-white illustrations.

The art is pretty good, even without any color. The expressions on the bears’ faces are, as usual for a Berenstain Bears book, odd, but this time the strange expressions are evil grins on the bad guys’ faces, so that’s fine. There are plenty of great illustrations of the circus, including the crooked games. Seeing Cousin Fred struggle to lift the weighted bottle is great.

The story is pretty good. The mystery of exactly who is cheating whom, and how the cubs will save the hospital wing, is very nice, for a children’s book, but the bears’ acting as the authors’ voices is, as usual, annoying. It’s inconsistent, too: here, Cousin Fred insists that video games will rot your brain, and he’d rather do anything than play games, but in The Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings, we learn that Cousin Fred has a large video game collection, which Brother Bear is jealous of. Of course, in that book, Mama complains about Brother’s desire for video games, so we get an anti-gaming message, either way.

It’s also a bit irritating when Mama insists that she will not tolerate cubs gossiping about grown-ups, and then she and Papa immediately proceed to do exactly that. I’d initially thought that it was going to be a lesson for Papa, that grown-ups, too, shouldn’t talk about others behind their backs, but, no, it was just a lesson that kids should never question adults. Later, when a whole group of the adults are gossiping about Dr. Gert and Ralph, and Sister interjects with a comment, Mama again scolds her for gossiping. It’s just hypocrisy, frankly.

But there are some good lessons in there, too. Always read things before you sign them, for one. Be wary of anyone that claims they’re doing evil for good reasons, for another. Don’t trust carnival games, too.

The Berenstain Bears in the Freaky Funhouse is a fun book. I spent about twenty minutes reading it, so it might provide an hour or two of good entertainment for a child, especially given the interesting illustrations. Definitely a good book for fans of the Berenstain Bears.


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The Berenstain Bears and the Attic Treasure

Posted by Tracy Poff on August 30, 2011

When Mama reads an article about converting an attic into a family room in Tree Housekeeping magazine, the family decides to have a yard sale to clear out their attic. However, each item in the attic is important to them, from Mama’s old trumpet, to the cracked honey pot that was a wedding gift, to Papa’s baseball card collection. It turns out that the attic was already a great family room–it just needed a little cleaning.

The Berenstain Bears and the Attic Treasure by Stan & Jan Berenstain portrays the Bear family reminiscing about some of their forgotten possessions. The moral, if there is one, is that our old things, and particularly the memories they evoke, are important to us.

The art is nice, even if the bears occasionally have very odd expressions–that’s par for the course in the modern Berenstain Bears books, though. It fun to see Mama and Papa’s wedding photos, and it’s amusing to see Sister “twirl-a-hooping up a storm” after Brother fails to twirl at all. Incidentally, I guess that, like Game Bear this is an attempt to avoid trademarks. Unlike Game Bear, though, which was amusing, twirl-a-hoop is just weird-sounding. Berenstains, think of more creative names, if you’re not going to say hula hoop.

My copy of this book was published as part of a promotion with McDonald’s, along with three others: The Berenstain Bears’ Life with Papa, The Berenstain Bears and the Substitute Teacher, and The Berenstain Bears and the Eager Beavers. I don’t have any of those three, as far as I can remember, so I can’t say whether there’s any common theme. However, The Berenstain Bears’ Life with Papa definitely sounds amusing to me. I’ll have to try to pick up a copy, some time.

The Berenstain Bears and the Attic Treasure is a pretty good Berenstain Bears book. Not much story nor much of a lesson, but it’s still fun, with amusing art, and it isn’t hampered by the sort of mean-spiritedness I noted in some of the others. Unfortunately, this one seems to be out of print, so you’ll have to pick up a used copy, if you want to read it for yourself.

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The Berenstain Bears

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 18, 2011

The Berenstain Bears were created by husband-and-wife team Stan and Jan Berenstain, back in 1962. Over the years, the art style and stories evolved: the first few books are basically funny stories with a little lesson, and the art style is rough and simple; later books often were very focused on the lesson, to the detriment, in my opinion, of the story, while the art style grew more polished.

The difference between the earlier and later books is pretty stark. Look, for example, at the covers for The Big Honey Hunt and The Bear Scouts, and compared them to the covers of The Berenstain Bears and The Truth, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food, and The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners. The covers of those two early books show Papa Bear and Small Bear (and, on The Bear Scouts, a few friends) happily engaged in some activity, enjoying themselves together. In the latter three, the most prominent image is Mama Bear, standing off to the left and glaring at her family. Why so mean-spirited? What happened to the simple joy in the early books? Sure, Mama had something of a resigned look on her face when Papa went off to do something foolish, but it was nothing like the cold glare she fixes on her children on the cover of The Berenstain Bears and the Truth.

Weirdly, though, these things are like a comic book cover proclaiming Batman is dead–they lie. Mama doesn’t get nearly as upset as the covers depict (though see my complaints about The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food). Why, then, must she look so horrible on the covers? It’s just not a pleasant thing to see.

I think it’s clear from what has come before that I prefer the older books to the newer ones. My instinctive reaction, for years, when someone mentions the Berenstain Bears was “that’s a great book series,” but really, I was only thinking of The Bear Scouts. I read that book many times when I was a wee thing, and it’s shaped my opinion on the books ever since–really, it has been the only book I had any particular opinion on. Sadly, upon reviewing the other books, they just don’t measure up to the standard set by the early ones.

Over two hundred books have been published, and I’ve read only a fraction of them. Those books that I’ve read and reviewed (listed in publication order) are:

  1. The Big Honey Hunt
  2. The Bike Lesson
  3. The Bear Scouts
  4. Inside Outside Upside Down
  5. The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby
  6. The Berenstain Bears and the Truth
  7. The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food
  8. The Berenstain Bears on the Moon
  9. The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners
  10. The Berenstain Bears and the Ghost of the Forest
  11. The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation
  12. The Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings

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The Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 18, 2011

The Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings tells how Brother and Sister Bear come to realize that they have plenty of blessings in life, if only they look for them.

The story opens with Brother and Sister visiting friends, and when they return (just in time, as it begins to rain) they eagerly begin talking about the new toys their friends have. This is, apparently, a regular result of such visits, and Mama is fed up with it. “I’ve heard quite enough,” she says, “about what you don’t have.” She encourages them to appreciate the things they do have, instead.

Mama and Papa begin listing some of the blessings the family has, and shortly after this, the storm intensifies, and the Bears lose their electricity. Sister becomes frightened by the lightning, but Papa teaches her how to tell how far away it is, by counting the seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder.

Actually, though, one complaint here: Papa explains that thunder is caused by air rushing to fill up the space where the lightning burnt up the air. I guess that maybe conservation of mass doesn’t apply in Bear Country, but around here, thunder is caused by the expansion of air, not its absence.

Ultimately, the cubs come to appreciate the things they have, and Mama and Papa plan to buy them some of the toys they had envied for their upcoming birthdays and Christmas.

The story in this one isn’t terrible, but it really isn’t much other than an excuse for the parents to tell their ungrateful children that they should be happy with their lot in life. It’s good to be happy with what nice things you do have, but it seems more like Mama just didn’t want to hear her children talking about their friends’ toys, and took the opportunity of the storm to shut them up. The best part is probably Papa teaching the cubs how to tell how far away lightning is. Although, Sister using the word ‘trousseau’ is pretty impressive, too.

The art’s not bad. The huge bolt of lightning that frightens Sister does look pretty intimidating, and it was fun to see the ‘Game Bear’ games that Brother is talking about.

This book isn’t too bad, but like The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food, I suspect it’s mostly used by parents as a prop to get their kids to stop bugging them about toys they want. I doubt it’s particularly effective, but there you have it. This one is (again!) not available for the Kindle, so if you want a prop, you’ll have to get it on paper.

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The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 18, 2011

The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation is a fun little story about how the Berenstain Bears’ worst vacation ever was still a lot of fun–at least, after it was over!

This is, I have decided, the best of the modern books (of those I’ve read). I say modern, but of course this was published in 1989–22 years ago as of this writing. This one tells a fun story, with plenty of amusing events, and a double lesson: that, sometimes, home is the place you most want to be; and that there is always some good to be found in even an unpleasant situation. These lessons flow naturally from the story in a way that is quite foreign to the more didactic books in the series, and the story is much better for it.

The art is nice in this one, and it depicts some pretty amusing events–amusing enough they’re worth seeing again in the photo gallery at the end. This kind of funny art is what made the earliest books so much fun, and this book certainly recaptures some of that.

I enjoyed this book far more than most of the recent Berenstain Bears books. Sadly, this one doesn’t seem to be available for the Kindle. I can’t imagine why they’d skip over a fun book like this and include a menace like The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners, but I guess that’s why I don’t make the big bucks. Do pick up a paper copy of this one if you feel the urge–it’s worth it.

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The Berenstain Bears and the Ghost of the Forest

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 18, 2011

The Berenstain Bears and the Ghost of the Forest tells how Papa Bear meant to scare the Bear Scouts on their trip to the forest, but ended up receiving a fright himself, courtesy of Mama Bear.

This is another Berenstain Bears book with a decent story, which kind seem to grow increasingly uncommon as the years wore on. This time, there’s a story in support of a lesson, rather than a story as an excuse for a lesson.

And the lesson is a fine one for kids, as well. Of ghosts, it says “There are no such things!/There never have been!”, but “it’s fun to be scared/of them anyway!” And, a little more subtly, treat others as you would be treated–if Papa wants to scare them, he should be prepared to be scared himself.

The art is fairly good in this one. We get to see Papa making his disguise, the Scouts preparing their camp, and the title illustration is nice, too. Actually, I haven’t mentioned this before, but the title page illustrations are usually quite good, even when the story or the other art is not.

I’m not too sure that this book will keep kids from being scared of ghosts, but it’s still a pretty good Berenstain Bears book. This one doesn’t seem to be available for the Kindle, but there are always plenty of paper copies, so pick one up if it interests you.

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The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 18, 2011

The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners is another didactic story, telling how Sister and Brother and Papa Bear behave rudely, and poor, saintly Mama Bear must bring them back from the brink of barbarism.

The story, such as it is, is simple and direct. Mama’s family is behaving rudely, and she will not stand for it. She tries coaxing, complaining, and shouting, and she tries enlisting Papa Bear to shout at the children, and none of these things cause them to be more polite. Eventually, she creates “The Bear Family Politeness Plan,” a list of ‘rudenesses’ and ‘penalties’ that she hopes will effect the changes she wishes to see. The cubs, too clever for their own good, decide that they will be so overly polite that Mama will get sick of it and give up on the whole idea. Their plan doesn’t work, and eventually they’re just polite out of habit. Mama wins again.

It’s probably clear from my tone that I don’t care for this book. As entertainment, it is a failure. I suspect that its sole purpose is as a prop for parents to justify similar ‘politeness plans’ for their own children.

Worse still, Mama Bear feels justified in shouting at her children, and enlisting her husband to shout at them and bang on the table in an intimidating display, just to enforce her ideas of ‘politeness.’ This is, to my mind, a far greater crime than ‘playing with food,’ ‘hogging bathroom,’ or ‘rude noises,’ three of the items on the list of ‘rudenesses’ that she was so concerned with.

The art is competent, but nothing special, and frankly the illustration of Papa shouting at the children as they are trying to eat, and beating his fists on the table so hard as to upset the tableware, is fairly unsettling.

Unlike the other Berenstain Bears books, which have been (in my experience) at worst boring, I think this book represents a certain kind of evil, implying that parents are justified in using intimidation to enforce their will upon their children. I would counsel against acquiring this book for any child.

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The Berenstain Bears on the Moon

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 18, 2011

The Berenstain Bears on the Moon tells a story of how Brother and Sister Bear went to the moon, and what they saw and did there.

This one is written in verse, rather than prose, and considering the limited story, it’s a good thing: “The bears put up a flag, took notes, and collected rocks.” wouldn’t be nearly as nice to read as “Then they fly their flag./They take moon notes./They collect moon rocks/in their moon rock totes.” Not that the poetry is that great, but at least it’s a little more interesting this way.

The art isn’t bad, but there aren’t very many details in the scenes: lots of featureless, dark blue skies fill the background of the pages. The only Berenstain Bears book I’ve seen with less detail was Inside Outside Upside Down.

I don’t believe there’s any lesson to be learned from this one. The whole thing is absurd–the Bears have a rocket, Papa drives a tanker full of rocket fuel up to it to fill it, and Brother and Sister (and a dog) go to the moon, play around a bit, and then come back. It’s more like a dream than any real event, in the context of these books.

The Berenstain Bears on the Moon isn’t too bad, but it’s just not up to the standard of the other books–it hasn’t got a story to match The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation, a lesson to match The Berenstain Bears and the Truth, comedy to match The Bear Scouts, or art to match… pretty much any of them. Maybe that’s why there’s no Kindle edition of this one. I wouldn’t avoid this one, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to acquire it, either.

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The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 17, 2011

The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food is a didactic tale, seeking to teach children to eat healthy food and eschew eating junk food.

The story opens by talking about what a nice place Bear Country is, comfortable, full of nice places to live, and “best of all” full of healthy food for all its inhabitants. Mama Bear observes that her cubs have been eating a lot of junk food and are beginning to get a bit chubby. She shuts away the junk food in the freezer, and whisks the family away to see Dr. Grizzly, who shows them a slideshow to teach them that it’s important to eat healthy foods, and, as they’re leaving, enjoins them to exercise, as well.

The cubs are all too enthusiastic about their new diet (much as, in The Berenstain Bears and the Truth, they were all too enthusiastic to own up to their lie), and Mama provides them with various healthy snacks to replace the unhealthy things they had been eating–though one wonders at them sneaking food into a theater, which kids probably shouldn’t attempt.

In the end, although Papa wants to celebrate their finishing a race by eating junk food, the lesson seems to have stuck with the cubs, who insist on carrot sticks, nuts, and raisins.

The art in this one doesn’t strike me as being up to the usual standard. There’s nothing really wrong with it–it’s a bit simpler than usual, perhaps–but there aren’t any really great illustrations, either. Usually, the illustrations will be amusing, even when the story is dull, but there’s not much of that in this book.

This book is really purely didactic–the story is as minimal as possible. There’s not the slightest bit of tension, and very little comedy. It’s just not much fun. I admit that I don’t know quite how to make a didactic tale about the benefits of healthy food interesting, either, but it’s probably possible.

This book, like many of the Berenstain Bears books, is available on paper or for the Kindle, at fairly reasonable prices. Frankly, though, I’m not sure this one is worth it. Better, probably, to lecture your children personally about the benefits of a healthy diet. This book really just makes me want to go find some junk food–everyone looks so happy on the cover, eating various snacks, that it just can’t be all that bad, can it?

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The Berenstain Bears and the Truth

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 17, 2011

The Berenstain Bears and the Truth tells how Brother Bear and Sister Bear tell a lie, and come to learn that they should always tell the truth, because, as the book says, “trust is one thing you can’t put back together once it’s broken.”

The story opens with Brother and Sister Bear sitting at home, doing nothing, and bored. Sister Bear suggests some things they could do, but Brother dismisses her ideas. Annoyed, she accuses him of being in love with the soccer ball he’s been holding. Incensed, he challenges her to try to stop him from dribbling the ball past her. Of course, playing soccer in the house must end badly, and Mama’s favorite lamp is broken.

When Mama arrives back home, moments later, Brother and Sister insist that it was a bird that broke the lamp–a purple bird with yellow feet, green wing tips, and red feathers sticking out of its head, they embellish. But Mama and Papa, who arrives later, aren’t fooled by their story. Mama tells them that the lamp can be fixed, but she is sad that her cubs, who she’s always trusted, are lying to her, and that trust can’t be so easily repaired.

Hearing this, both Brother and Sister fall all over themselves to take the blame for breaking the lamp, and we are told that after this, they “never, ever again told a whopper.”

Like many of the later books, the story is just there to hang the moral lesson on, so it’s not that great. But the part with them describing the bird is a little amusing, and the lesson is good, even if it’s a bit unbelievable that they never lied again.

The art is pretty good. It’s now in the style of the more recent books–this one was published in 1983–so it’s quite a bit smoother, though I do admit a fondness for the earlier art style. The part with the cubs describing the bird is again amusing–the illustrations make that scene.

The moral lesson, as I said, is a good one. I like this better than most books that purport to teach children not to lie. In most such books, the moral seems to be something like “don’t lie, because you’ll get caught,” which is a rather… infantile… view of morality. This one proclaims “don’t lie, because you will be breaking someone’s trust in you, which is precious and hard to rebuild,” which is a much better lesson. There’s still a little “don’t get caught” in there, but it’s not what’s emphasized.

Ultimately, I’d say that The Berenstain Bears and the Truth is my favorite of the later (post-1970) Berenstain Bears books, or else a close second to The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation. There are lots that I haven’t read, of course, but most of the ones I have read just lack the charm of the first few books.

This one is again readily available in print or on the Kindle, and it’s worth a look. I may grow tired of repeating “this is available on the Kindle,” but so few children’s are that I think it bears repeating: publishers, take note–we can’t buy your books if you aren’t selling them to us.

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