The Berenstain Bears and the Moral Minefield – The Dabbler, Jan 2015

The Berenstain Bears and the Moral Minefield – The Dabbler, Jan 2015

This piece arose from reading about two very heated responses to the Berenstain Bears series of children’s books and cartoons.  The posthumous “Good riddance” to Mrs Berenstain in particular struck me as wildly disproportionate. I can understand parents disliking the Berenstain bears. Yet, as I outline below, this says more about the parents (and “cultural commentators”) than it does about the children. Of course, my own ventures into this area could be accused of the same thing. All this now strikes me forcefully as yet another example of the endless moral one-upmanship which seems, at times, to be the main function of social media.

berenstain cover

The Berenstain Bears and the Moral Minefield

Usually the death of a prominent person is greeted with respectful appraisal. After a while it fades, but initially “don’t speak ill of the dead” is the obituarist’s watchword. Exceptions are made for mass killers, Mrs Thatcher, and Stan and Jan Berenstain, husband-and-wife authors of The Berenstain’s Baby Book, How To Teach Your Children About Sex Without Making a Complete Fool of Yourself, and, most crucially for their legacy, the Berenstain Bear series of children’s books.

The Berenstain Bears, for those readers unfamiliar with them, are an anthropomorphic bear family, comprising the paterfamilias Papa Q Bear, Mother Bear, Brother Bear, and Sister Bear. With their fairly overt moralising, the Bears do not even attempt the kind of nods to adult sensibilities that many grown-ups now rather selfishly expect from children’s entertainment. Brother and Sister are inevitably taught worthwhile lessons about responsibility and so on. They live in a rather bucolic setting on the fringe of the kind of small town America we all know primarily from fictional portrayals.

berenstain one

Naturally the Berenstains reflected the various mores of their times, and their Bears had an explicitly didactic, helpful aim. They seemed to have lived fairly typical mid- to late Twentieth Century lives. Stan Berenstain died first, aged 82, in 2005, and inspired the journalist Paul Fahri to this obituary:

The larger questions about the popularity of the Berenstain Bears are more troubling: Is this what we really want from children’s books in the first place, a world filled with scares and neuroses and problems to be toughed out and solved? And if it is, aren’t the Berenstain Bears simply teaching to the test, providing a lesson to be spit back, rather than one lived and understood and embraced?

Specifically, the figure of Papa aroused Fahri’s scorn:

There is, however, always something off in the Bear family, and his name was Papa. More than just a comic figure, he is the Negative Example by which his family learns its lesson. Stan Berenstain has said that he modeled Papa after himself, but Papa is really a stock character, a Dagwood Bumstead or Ralph Kramden for the pre-kindergarten set. That has always been the smaller of the criticisms about Stan and Jan Berenstain’s stories: That by depicting dads as doofuses, they undercut the very parental authority and wisdom they seek to embrace. Can young children accept the Berenstains’ teachings without noticing a parallel message — that dads are dummies who are better off ignored?

All this was written with Stan recently dead. While the Berenstains were still alive, the psychiatrist turned neoconservative commentator Charles Krautenhammer had in 1989 penned a rather alarming screedrevealing the Berenstains aroused as much of his scorn as wimpish liberals did.  He also into the Berenstains as subversive of masculine authority: “the post-feminist Papa Bear, the Alan Alda of grizzlies, a wimp so passive and fumbling he makes Dagwood Bumstead look like Batman.”

The Berenstain Bears' Trouble With Money


“Good riddance” are possibly the most toxic words possible to use about the recently departed, but the Berenstains managed to provoke one commentator into exactly that. Jan died of a stroke in 2012, and her death inspired Slate’s Hanna Rosin (whose blog is subtitled “What Women Really Think”) to write: “As any right-thinking mother would say, good riddance.” For Rosin, however, Mama Bear is the problem:

There, in the big treehouse down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country is Mama Bear, known only ever as Mama Bear, wearing the same blue polka-dotted muumuu and housecap in every single book, inside the house and on the very rare occasions when she leaves it. (What’s her problem? Is there no Target in Bear Country? Is she too busy to change? Is she clinically depressed?) Mama Bear’s only pleasures in life seem to come from being the Tracy Flick of domesticity, making up charts for good behavior and politeness, encouraging her children to use pretentious British affectations such as “terribly sorry” and “lovely, my dear.”

Rosin did later apologise, for “not really thinking of her as a person with actual feelings and a family, just an abstraction who happened to write these books”, but the riddance-wishing and headline remain online until the end of time when the Internet will fall into the sea.

There seems to be a whole lot of projecting going on in all this. For Fahri and Krauthammer, Papa Bear is an emasculated dolt; for Rosin, Mama Bear is some kind of Stepford Wife-esque figure.

The Berenstain Bears cartoons were solemnly devoured by my daughter when she was five (although now she is six she has moved on to programmes about talking dinosaurs on time-travelling trains). Looking over her shoulder, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. The cartoons were not very interesting for an adult, but they aren’t meant to be. I failed to find either the emasculated father or neurotic mother. Fahri becomes particularly exercised that the Berenstain’s world excluded the possibility of negative emotion and evoked “a world filled with scares and neuroses and problems to be toughed out and solved” which all sounds very worthy on his part, until you remember that children generally dislike being scared and would rather like to solve their problems.

berenstain three

Fahri and Rosin are united by more than simple Berenstain-loathing; they both exemplify a more recent trend in adult approaches to children’s culture. While traditional moralists wished for children to read improving tales which exemplified their own worldviews, more recent moralists wish for children’s culture to be free, whimsical, unhindered by ostensibly moralist impulses. Adults also increasingly demands little hat-tips to their own adult cleverness. Children’s entertainment becomes adult entertainment.

Children, of course, do love whimsy and fantasy and so forth. They also seem to have a great appetite for simple stories with clear morals of which the Berenstain Bears seem to be a perfect example of. Fahri in particular seems to demand some kind of sophisticated, sixth-stage-Kohlbergian morality , and Rosin seems to particularly object to Mama Bear’s outfit, but perhaps a children’s story is not where they are likely to find what they are looking for.

The Berenstain’s neat trick in outraging two sets of quite different contemporary moralists reminds one of a universal truth of children’s literature, children’s cinema – what could be called children’s culture generally. It tends to defy and escape adult control and adult aspiration, even though it is in so many respects entirely purchased with adult economic resources and within an adult cultural framework. Children’s stories will always be contested, an arena for moralists, especially the supposed anti-moralists, to try and shape the minds of the next generation. Of course, minds are not such easy things to mould after all.


Review of “The Terrible Two”, Mac Barnett and Jory John, Childrens Books Ireland December 2015

This review was to a large degree dictated by my seven year old daughter. I have always thought that grown up reviewers (especially film reviewers who evidently would be preferred to be watching some worthy drama or other) covering works for children is a little absurd. I disliked this but my daughter still sometimes asks for it (and appreciated the tablet/tablets wordplay, it seems)  I myself am far from immune from the tendency of adults to project their own desires and values onto what they want their children to read, watch and listen to.



Miles has had to move from the school by the sea he loved and where he was the acknowledged master prankster, to Yawnee Valley (most famous for cows) and a new school where he knows no one. In this new school he soon realises that an anonymous, brilliant prank mastermind already occupies his former position. But who is it? Bullied by the principal’s son, and forced into a stilted principal-assigned friendship with the quiet, officious Niles, Miles tries to conceive of a perfect prank to seize the school prankster title, but it is foiled and then an unexpected revelation leads to the creation of the Terrible Two.

Initially rivals engaged in a prank war between themselves, when they join forces the Terrible Two pledge  to ‘to disrupt, but not destroy; to embarrass the dour and amuse the merry.’ Together, they extend their pranking career to new heights.

Full of witty details such as inordinate amount of facts about cows, the five generations of Principal Barkinses, the ‘Prank Lab’, and the elaborately hilarious pranks themselves, the book will appeal to fans of the Wimpy Kid series but with an added helping of antic silliness. The illustrations by Kevin Cornell are perfectly in tune with the text and add an extra layer of fun.

The pranks are humorous and wildly over-the-top rather than cruel, and while never moralistic, lessons can indeed be drawn about friendship and teamwork. However, this is mainly a hugely entertaining opening to what promises to be a highly popular series.

– See more at:

An unpublished review: Review of “THE GREAT WAR: STORIES INSPIRED BY OBJECTS FROM THE FIRST WORLD WAR 1914-1918” – written for Children’s Books Ireland, Sept 2014

This capsule review took a lot of work and in the end wasn’t used for CBI’s Recommended Reading guide. I guess because I didn’t recommend it.

I recently have been reading some of John Buchan’s Sir Edward Leithen novels – the one which has made the biggest impression being The Dancing Floor. In this, Leithen opines:

There has been a good deal of nonsense talked about the horror of war memories and the passionate desire to bury them. The vocal people were apt to be damaged sensitives, who were scarcely typical of the average man. There were horrors enough, God knows, but in most people’s recollections these were overlaid by the fierce interest and excitement, even by the comedy of it. At any rate that was the case with most of my friends, and it was certainly the case with me.

Whatever the precise truth of this, there is something unnerving in how the memory of WWI has become a kind of rhetorical bludgeon. The stories in this anthology ultimately struck me as manipulative and somewhat self-serving. Writing about The Horror Of War can be a rather cheap short cut to profundity.



WALKER BOOKS 2014 (HBK) UK RRP £12.99 ISBN978-1-4063-5377-8

As the First World War is now entirely lost to living memory, stories are crucial in shaping our perception of this conflict. The popular view of the First World War changed over the course of the Twentieth Century, with largely discredited histories such as that of Alan Clark on “lions led by donkeys”, and the likes of “Oh What A Lovely War” and “Blackadder” forming popular views of the conflict. Stories are clearly crucial in the continuing evolution of remembrance.

This collection uses artefacts of the War as prompts for each story by a leading Young Adult author. Some of the stories are contemporaneous to the War, others are set in later decades and explore the impact of memory and the intergenerational legacy of the conflict.  John Boyne’s “The Country You Called Home”, inspired by a recruiting poster for the Tyneside Irish Battalion, illustrates some of the conflicting identities that were at play in Ireland during the conflict.

Overall, most of the stories are somewhat restrained, with a sense of solemnity that too often tips into overreverence for the theme. The exceptions are Timothée de Fombelle’s “Captain Rosalie”, inspired by a Victoria Cross, and Ursula Dubosarsky’s “Little Wars”, inspired by a French toy soldier, both of which manage to be true to the subject matter without being cowed by it.  The stories contemporary to the War are generally more effective than the rather pat approach of those set decades after the events, in which the object too often serves as a deus ex machina. 

Help! The Wolf Is Coming. Review for Inis Childrens Magazine, August 2015.

Here is the original. 

I have done a fair few reviews for Inis, the magazine of Childrens Books Ireland. Not all have gone online and the magazine is fairly irregularly published. I enjoy the discipline of a capsule review. Reviewing a pre school book is also challenging. It is also sometime challenging to be too damning of a book for children although I managed it here

Since 2009, the team of Toulouse-born Cédric Ramadier and Brussels-born Vincent Bourgeau have produced a stream of brightly illustrated block books with a very distinctive look and feel, simultaneously fresh and ‘classic.’ Their work strongly emphasises interactivity with the book itself.

Originally published in French, this is a charming board book which features a wolf approaching the ‘fourth wall’. The reader is asked to engage with the book in various ways – tilting, tapping, turning it upside down – to try and stop the wolf’s progress as he gets steadily closer. Despite all the shaking, inverting and tapping, the persistent lupine interloper keeps going, and the book has a satisfying circularity that will keep children reading again and again.

This is a highly enjoyable board book with clear, bright colours, an appropriately fierce (but not overly scary-looking) wolf, and a pleasing sense of drama and suspense. It also illustrates the importance and potential of the physical book itself, especially in engaging the youngest co-readers with words and pictures in a dynamic, fun way.

Ramadier and Bourgeau are a team worth following; their books are ideal in engaging young children and one would hope further translations will broaden their appeal further.