Co-Creator Of 'Berenstain Bears' Book Series Dies

Jan Berenstain, co-creator of the beloved children's series, The Berenstain Bears, died Friday at the age of 88. Jan and her husband Stan published their first book — The Big Honey Hunt — in 1962. The series grew to more than 300 books and sold more than 250 million copies worldwide. Audie Cornish speaks with the couple's son, illustrator Mike Berenstain, who continued working on the books with his mother until her death last week.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Jan Berenstain, co-creator of the beloved children's series, "The Berenstain Bears," has died. She was 88 years old. Jan and her husband, Stan, published their first book, "The Big Honey Hunt," back in 1962.

Over the years, more than 300 other books followed, selling more than 250 million copies worldwide.

In their big tree house down a sunny dirt road, the Berenstain Bear family grappled with common childhood concerns, like trips to the dentist, poor sportsmanship and new siblings.

Jan and Stan Berenstain worked together on nearly every book until Stan's death in 2005. The couple's son, Mike Berenstain, has also been writing and illustrating new Berenstain Bear stories and he joins us now.

Welcome, Michael.

MICHAEL BERENSTAIN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CORNISH: So, to begin, tell us a little bit about your mom. I read that before she came to children's books, she was a draftswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers and an aircraft riveter in World War II.

BERENSTAIN: Yes. Well, of course, that was during the war. She and my dad met in 1941 when they started art school. And then, of course, the war came and my dad was drafted in '43. And while he was doing that, my mother - you know, she said the art school got kind of boring after the men were all drafted, so she took time off to work - do war work. I think she drew the electrical transformer diagrams for the Army Corps and then she worked in a factory in Philadelphia, working on Navy sea planes as a riveter.

And then, after the war, she and my dad were married and they started a career as magazine cartoonists together.

CORNISH: How did they come to be collaborators on the Berenstain book series?

BERENSTAIN: Well, they had a long career doing family humor cartoons and books of family humor. And, since their cartoons really were about kids and family life and family situations and they had children of their own, myself and my older brother, they got very interested in the whole subject of children's books.

And, after "The Cat in the Hat" was published, they learned Theodor Seuss Geisel was becoming the editor and publisher of a whole line of books called Beginner Books. He was looking for other cartoonists to work with and they figured, well, we're cartoonists, we could do that. So they submitted an idea about a family of bears and he liked them and he published and edited their first books.

CORNISH: The mama bear character in the Berenstain Bears books often imparts wisdom and helps convey the lesson learned. Was your mom like that at all?

BERENSTAIN: Yes. You know, my parents were a lot like them. My mom was very calm and sensible and under control and my father was very excitable and funny and accident prone, so I think that's where the characters came from.

CORNISH: What was it like for you, getting to write with your mom?

BERENSTAIN: Well, it was a great privilege. I mean, I had been working with my parents for many years, going back late '80s. But to work with her that closely, one-on-one all the time, was a great privilege. You know, she just was very, very, very sensible, very - incredibly knowledgeable about putting together books and publishing.

And she was also a great keeper of the bear style book in her head and if you put - if I did the ears a little wrong, she'd point that out. The ears aren't quite right. So I learned a lot about how to draw from her.

CORNISH: Mike Berenstain, thank you so much for talking with us.

BERENSTAIN: You're very welcome. It's been a great pleasure. Thank you.

CORNISH: Mike Berenstain talking about his mother, Jan, co-creator of the beloved children's book series, The Berenstain Bears. She died Friday at the age of 88.

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