The Heart of a Bear

It was Mama Bear who gave me my first inkling of how this thing called pregnancy worked.

Papa Bear gave me some of my earliest woodland survival lessons – usually by spectacularly screwing up his own efforts.

And Brother and Sister Bear were a constant reminder that you didn’t have to always get along to love each other.

Good lessons, for a few generations. And they’re going to have to stick now. Because the teacher has left the classroom.

For those who missed it, Jan Berenstain died last week. She and her husband Stan (who died in 2005) wrote and drew the Berenstain Bears books, which became part of the go-to bookshelf for childhood. Their work was sometimes silly, sometimes touching, but always reassuring and never cruel.

As I look back from yet another birthday (Mom made me promise not to put the number in print this year), I realize why the Berenstains have worn so well. Or why they did with me, anyway.

They didn’t write down to their audience.

I don’t mean that they didn’t use simple words or tried to employ complex, multi-layered plots. But they also didn’t assume that being young meant being stupid. All it meant was that there were things you didn’t know yet – and they were ready to help fill a little of the gap.

I lived for writers like that.

As I got older, I met still more of them. Madeleine L’Engle assumed I could handle a story of hidden angels and baroque time travel. J.R.R. Tolkien pushed my third-grade vocabulary to places it hadn’t gone yet and brought it back richer for the journey. Ellen Raskin (The Westing Game) dared to dazzle me with intricate puzzles; Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth) made me laugh as I learned, sometimes slipping in subtle moral lessons that wouldn’t be recognized overtly until I was older.

I count all of them, and more besides, among my teachers, friends and well-met companions.

They’re still out there – children’s writers who shape the mind instead of pacifying it, who wake it up instead of numbing it down. They may have more to compete with these days. But maybe not so much more at that; my generation was supposed to be hopelessly distracted by junk TV and Atari video games, after all.

All they need is the chance to make the acquaintance.

And maybe a little encouragement.

It’s a tricky balance; how to give a child enough guidance to learn without smothering their childhood. In his own way, Papa Bear may have been the best example, showing the idea of how to rub two sticks together, but letting his Bear Scouts light the blaze.

Granted, that was because Papa couldn’t light a fire to save his life. But still.

Yes, you have to provide the tools. Maybe even make clear how they work. And then you step back and watch. Maybe ready to help, but always ready to cheer.

And good books by good writers may be some of the best, longest-lasting tools of all.

So thank you, Stan and Jan. Thank you for getting us started down the road. You may have been simple, but you were always worthwhile.

Because of you, we’ve all got something to bear in mind.

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