Jan Berenstain, who with her husband, Stan, wrote and illustrated the Berenstain Bears books that have charmed preschoolers and their parents for 50 years, resulting in two television series, a number of TV specials and even a videogame, suffered a severe stroke on Thursday and died Friday in Solebury, Penn. She was 88.
The gentle tales of Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Brother Bear and Sister Bear were inspired by the Berenstain children and later their grandchildren. The stories address children’s common concerns and aim to offer guidance on subjects like dentist visits, peer pressure, a new sibling or summer camp.
The first Berenstain Bears book, “The Big Honey Hunt,” was published in 1962. Over the years, more than 300 titles have been released in 23 languages — most recently in Arabic and Icelandic — and have become a rite of passage for generations of young readers.
Stan and Jan Berenstain, both Philadelphia natives, were 18 when they met on their first day at art school in 1941.
They married in 1946, after Stan Berenstain returned home from serving as a medical illustrator at a Stateside Army hospital during WWII. During that time, Jan Berenstain worked as a draftsman for the Army Corps of Engineers and as a riveter building Navy seaplanes.
Before their family of bear books was born, the young couple had already built a successful career in periodicals. A cartoon series they produced called “All in the Family” ran in McCall’s and Good Housekeeping magazines for 35 years, and their art appeared in magazines including Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post.
Stan and Jan Berenstain created hundreds of books until Stan Berenstain’s death in 2005.
Mike Berenstain is an illustrator who collaborated on the books with his mother in recent years. His elder brother, writer Leo Berenstain, is involved with the business end of the family franchise.
The books in recent years have tackled modern subjects such as online safety and childhood obesity, and the bears (or their human helpers) answer children’s emails and letters, but the goal is to tell enduring, universal stories. Perennial favorites cover challenges of getting kids to doing chores, defuse fears of the first day of school and teach values of kindness and generosity.
About 260 million copies of Berenstain Bears books have been held in the hands of children and their parents since the earliest books were published with the help of Theodor Geisel, a children’s books editor at Random House better known as Dr. Seuss.
The characters first hit the smallscreen in 1979 in the NBC special “The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree,” followed by “The Berenstain Bears Meet Bigpaw,” “The Berenstain Bears’ Easter Surprise,” “The Berenstain Bears’ Comic Valentine” and “The Berenstain Bears Play Ball.” Jan and Stan Berenstain penned these specials. Videogame “The Berenstain Bears in Big Paw’s Cave” was released in 1983.
The first “Berenstain Bears” TV series, created by the Berenstains, debuted in 1985 on CBS and went on to draw nominations for Daytime Emmys and for the Peabody Award. Another series debuted on PBS in 2002, and a feature adaptation is currently in the works.
Mike Berenstain said he will continue writing and illustrating future Berenstain books.
Jan Berenstain is survived by her two sons and four grandchildren.