The three bears aren't about chairs, and beds, and porridge anymore. The three bears my grandkids know best gather up a rope, a stick, and a flashlight and set out to explore a gigantic, hollow tree just down the winding path from their home. In this episodic tale employing the simplest of words and the richest of illustrations, these loveable bear siblings couple their meager safety devices with their huge sense of adventure to create a suspense-filled story Sooby and Pooh have loved ever since we first read it together around Halloween.
The name of the book is The Berenstain Bears and The Spooky Old Tree, and I pay this tribute to it on the occasion of the recent death of co-author/illustrator Jan Berenstain at age 88 from complications of a stroke. Before the death of her husband Stan in 2005, the Berenstains took their teamwork to the drawing table, creating a 50-year-long legacy of their gentle, humorous bear stories for generations of children who cut their literary teeth on their unforgettable characters, words, and pictures.
In this story the bear children find their imaginative tools of defense ineffective as, one by one, they are destroyed or made inaccesible by the forces of danger they encounter within the tree--a ravenous, snapping alligator who clenches the rope away in his sharp, pointed teeth; a battle-axe-bearing suit of armor who expertly splits the stick in half; and the ominous "Great Sleeping Bear," who, very unhappy at the prospect of being disturbed, knocks the flashlight away from the last little bear. His act of aggression renders the trio defenseless in the dark as they are left with no choice but to scamper for the safety of home.
An aside: For the record, in our enactments of this story, the role of Great Sleeping Bear (whom Pooh calls "Sleeping Old Bear") has often fallen to me, whereupon I lie in a heap on the floor and pretend to awaken in a rage as the kids crawl over me. This can hurt. After we have played the scene several times, I sometimes assume the grouchy, aggressive character of Sleeping Old Bear for the rest of the evening.
You have to admire Stan and Jan Berenstein, who met in art school when they were barely adults themselves, married five years later, and devoted their lives to creating children's art for 60 years. For their plots, they turned to the antics of their own children; for their themes they chose to reinforce universal family values (today.msnbc.msn.com/id/46543696?ocid=ansmsnbc11#.TO1cmlemhME).
Their formula worked. In their lifetime they saw 300 stories published in 23 languages, with sales reaching 260 million books. Their respect for young readers shows in the way they were never didactic, never judgmental. Their trademark style always guided children gently toward enduring truths and universal values (www.newser.com/story/140584/jan-berenstain-dead-at-88.html). Certainly, the death of Stan in 2005 and now that of Jan leaves an empty space on the bookshelf that is contemporary children's literature.
For the Berenstain bears who adventure into the spooky old tree, home is a haven where they can return for safety and security, personified by Mother Bear in her white-polka-dotted blue housedress. The kids get this subtle message: It is OK to explore beyond the familiar so long as you never lose your sense of home.