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The Bear Facts : Sure, Dad's a bit of a buffoon, and Mom's rigid and efficient. But more than 100 books later, the 'Berenstain Bears' clan is still going strong--as are their seventysomething creators.

February 01, 1995|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW HOPE, Pa. — Among the enduring mysteries of the universe, there is this stubborn perplexity:

Why is Papa Bear such a doofus?

"But he's not!" protested Stan and Jan Berenstain, with the cheery tone of unison that inhabits every one of their hundreds of "Berenstain Bears" stories.

Sure, they admitted, he's a klutz, a buffoon, a hothead and a hopeless incompetent when it comes to anything domestic. As for Mama Bear, breathes there a more rigid, uptight and demanding dervish of household efficiency?

"Look," said Stan, letting the world in on a little just-between-you-and-me family secret. "I was told by a lawyer once that truth is a complete defense. Mama's perfectionism is about Jan."

And Papa's bullheadedness?

He nodded. "Yep. That's me."

In short, the Berenstains agreed, typical role models, parents who have withstood the test of more than three decades in print. The Berenstain Bears have appeared in more than 100 books; even their creators have lost track of the exact number. The Bears series has sold more than 200 million copies in dozens of languages worldwide. Most recently, the Berenstains found themselves translated into Hungarian.

Now, for a little literary variety, the husband-and-wife team has ventured back into the realm of grown-up writing. "What Your Parents Never Told You About Being a Mom or Dad" (Crown, 1995) represents a homecoming of sorts, since "Berenstains' Baby Book" (MacMillan, 1951) was their first title.

That was the book they wrote on the invitation of an editor friend who could not stop laughing at their tales of trying to raise baby Leo (now 46) in an un-air-conditioned flat above an Army-Navy surplus store in downtown Philadelphia. At the time they were 24, and starting to become known for their cartoons and covers in magazines such as Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post.

Now that they are 71 and grandparents of four, the Berenstains still marvel about how the species manages to perpetuate itself. Disposable diapers may be an invention on a cosmic par with the wheel, they concede in their new book, but one day the Statue of Liberty will look down to see herself "buried up to her neck in a deep endless blanket of something, something non-biodegradable." And sleep deprivation, they reveal, is the dirtiest parenting secret of all.

"Our sons (Leo was soon joined by a brother, Michael) have often asked us why we never told them how terrible it was not to be able to sleep," Jan said.

"If we had," interrupted Stan--like Papa Bear, the more loquacious of the pair--"they never would have had kids of their own. You know, in some cultures, that's how they torture people, by not letting them sleep."

Better dressed than their ursine counterparts, Stan and Jan nonetheless do possess some resemblance to . . . well . . . bears. Here in the affluent serenity of Bucks County, about 40 miles and a million light-years from their old address in downtown Philly, they live in a house replete with wood and stones, and blessed with an endless view of thickets and meadows. They emanate coziness, built on 50-plus years of sharing an easel and finishing each other's sentences.

They met on their first day as art students in 1941, falling in love instantly, they both affirm.

"I loved your drawing," Jan said, the years melting as she gazed at her husband.

"I still remember what you had on," Stan replied.

"You were wearing soldier pants," Jan said. "And a plaid flannel shirt."

World War II separated them, sending Jan off to work as a riveter and Stan for a military hitch that ended with him doing medical illustrations for an Army plastic surgeon. Thirteen days after his discharge in 1946, they were married. They promptly set to work on a joint career, doing illustrations and humorous sketches.

"I had become very interested in cartooning," Stan explained. As a career path, "I thought, gee, that looks like fun."

He began sending the drawings off to a publication called the Saturday Review of Literature. "And I got back a response from a man named Norman Cousins, who said, 'Great stuff, corporal, send more. We'll pay you $35 apiece.' I thought wow, what a racket."

*

Their magazine cover art brought them the "astronomical" sum of $1,000 per illustration. "Berenstains' Baby Book" led to nearly two dozen other books about family life.

Nominally geared to adults, those books bore such titles as "Marital Blitz," "How to Teach Your Children About Sex Without Making a Complete Fool of Yourself" and "Have a Baby, My Wife Just Had a Cigar!" By today's standards, these humorous paperbacks might seem terminally corny, but Stan regards them as rather distinguished. "We try to dignify them by calling them cartoon essays," he said.

Then Stan happened upon a New Yorker profile of a Random House editor, Theodor Geisel, who was launching a line of rhyming books for young readers. The Berenstains went to see the man better known as Dr. Seuss, taking with them what they called "a bad imitation of Ogden Nash."

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