Inexplicable Books: The horror, the horror…

I realized, when I wrote that last post, that I've posted on this topic before, which means no doubt that I will have to add it as a category and go back and retroactively tag all the posts that it makes sense with, which should happen along about the time I create a list of all the books mentioned on this site and also buy new bras. Yep, anytime now.

But I was thinking of the long list of things I didn't understand (oh, it is so long) and within that list the books that appealed to my children for reasons I could not fathom, and I came to the origin: the book whose appeal I was so entirely helpless to explain that I eventually just recycled it in hopes of exorcising its creepy bewitching power from my house.

That's right: it's the bears.


Now, I know there's a lot of hate out there for the bears. And yes, I understand it. My husband is particularly horrified by their countrified aspect: Papa's overalls, his hayseed hat, the whole "mama and papa" thing in general (though it must be said that in our daily struggle against the mess and chaos of living with children, he will not-so-rarely cite The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room for helpful tips on how to get more organized). My mother-in-law was particularly offended by these books and their general, in her view, badness.

But the children? My children? Other people's children? Any child I have ever experienced? They LOVE them. And none more than the one above. We took this book with us on vacation once when we were vacationing with another family. The kids were not that little: maybe 5 and 9? But this book was like the ring of power. Everyone (under 10) wanted it, and whoever had it would read it reverently, surrounded by the others who peered over his or her shoulders in the hopes of a tiny life-giving peek while the holder of the book had to be forced to give it up. It was crazy; every parent had to read it for a bedtime book, and once one did the whole troop of kids would scurry to the next parent who could be suckered into reading it.

All of which makes me hesitate to deem it worthless. Surely its powerful pull means something? Though I suppose methamphetamine exerts a powerful pull. But the bears don't end up with you stealing from your relatives and losing all your teeth! Mostly, anyway.

But what is it? Here are some theories: most kids find our actions just as incomprehensible as we do theirs. And these books strive to make our actions somewhat comprehensible. Or maybe it's just so freaking reassuring: they approach all these daunting topics of daily life and worry, and invariably come up with the message that everything is fine! And will continue to be fine! I myself tried to launch a hashtag on twitter, #berenstainbearsbooksforgrownups, that never quite took off (imagine!) in the hopes that we could create a whole series of books to reassure us that everything would be fine, it's all going to be fine, we promise! The Berenstain Bears and the Bedbugs! The Berenestain Bears and the Kid Who Failed Spanish! The Berenstain Bears and the Balloon Mortgage Payment. The Berenstain Bears Sounds reassuring, right?


I don't know. I just know that wow, that's one crazy appealing thing they've got going. I wonder how it works.

14 thoughts on “Inexplicable Books: The horror, the horror…

  1. I have to tell you, my son loved the bears, and I didn’t mind one bit. They were short, relevant to things he was dealing with. He loved them. And Barney. And Mr. Rogers. My parents always made me read “good books,” and I never wanted to dictate that to my kids. I think you’re right – there’s something there that we don’t get, but that’s okay.


  2. My second son just loves the Bears. I’m grateful he chooses them over the Curious George books. I loved George as a kid, but as an adult??? Lemme get this straight, A man goes to Africa and traps a monkey and take him to the zoo–then the monkey escapes and (after a brief visit in jail) has various adventures including being a guinea pig for some scientist’s attempt to send a rocket into space? Pretty un-PC!


  3. I loved the Berenstain Bears when I was little, and I hate reading them to my kids now, but I understand that they love them. I actually think it’s the pictures more than the story – there’s something about the way they are drawn that I always loved. My mom said she used to hate reading the Berenstain Bears to me, but not as much as she hated the Serendipity books, which I also loved with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns.


  4. I’m not surprised Liz referenced Barney before I did. I was too old for Barney and remember vitriolic listservs in the protointernet with names like killbarneydiediedie. But my best-ever mentor at work in the early 1990s was a 50-ish baby boomer who’d married late and had his first son in his early 50s. And it was with great delight that he told me his son loved Barney because it was sweet, no one was upset, the kids got along, it was unalloyed goodness and that was both why his kid LOVED it and why grownups hated it. And I realized: he’s right. Isn’t the world scary enough when you are that young? Isn’t a world with order, kind words, understanding grownups with boundaries, and comprehensible rules so appealing? I don’t mind the Bears; they just never bothered me. But you are right, every family has one Bears book that the kids cannot read enough. Happily, they don’t bother me.
    And I’m totally with Mom of Boys on Curious George–one of the few examples ever in my life where the movie is better than the book!


  5. Thank you so much for reminding me that the Bears phase in our house seems to be OVER. I will never ever ever get over them.
    Of course, now we’re on to Rainbow Magic fairies. But at least DD can read now, so I can say “those are read-to-yourself books”.
    As to Barney et al, I don’t think Barney ever hurt anyone, though he is not exactly what you might call High Art. Curious George… I know he’s non-PC but he doesn’t seem as damaging as the bears. It’s not JUST that they are poorly written, unimaginative, and cookie-cutter. It’s also that they perpetuate hurtful stereotypes and unrealistic expectations.
    Mr. Rogers was a national treasure.


  6. This post and the last brought me back to our home a few years ago. Both my boys LOVED the bears and we read them all.the.time. Add the book below to my younger son’s shelf and you pretty much had our reading material for most of his toddler years.


  7. This post made me giggle — nearly aloud. Particularly your conception of an adult Bears series. I love it.
    My children have all loved the series — and I admit that I feel sort of fond of them myself. My daughter actually looks a bit like Sister Bear in the morning, with bedhead. 🙂


  8. I loved these as a kid and I still enjoy reading them to nieces/nephews etc. Maybe the unrealistic parts don’t bother me as an adult because I already loved the characters. Yes, Mama is always right and Papa is usually off base, but it’s all done in such a loving way that it doesn’t grate on me like that same dynamic does on the Simpsons.
    They are also handy for making some pretty big issues manageable for a youngster.


  9. Fascinating questions. And great insight from MemeGRL too–maybe that’s what upsets me so much about some of those “kid-friendly” things. Mr Rogers and Sesame Street, in addition to ringing true from my own childhood, seem to feature patient adults who nonetheless feel real, kids who sometimes make mistakes, etc. But it’s not as simple as the sheen that the Bears put on everything. Of course, that being said, I’m the parent who often answers questions with way more shades of gray than my 7-year-old wants. Perhaps some black-and-white, things-are-always-going-to-be-okay laquer is just what they want. And just because I hate it, it doesn’t mean they necessarily have to.


  10. I loved these when I was little! I still remember the “too much candy” one. I wanted to take carrot sticks with me to the movies after reading that (as the bears learn to do – spoiler alert…), but my mother said no!
    I would agree with you that it’s making scary issues, palatable. Not wanting to admit that you’re scared of having a babysitter, you can see vicariously how the bears handle it.
    And they are also drawn in a fun way, good point, I still remember many of the illustrations.
    (This is 2 posts in a row that I’ve admitted loving sub-par books, I promise I do read more high-brow things sometimes 😉 ).


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