About that time The Berenstain Bears tried to address bullying...

December 13, 2019

If you were born after 1970 and grew up in the U.S., you probably read Berenstain Bears books when you were a child. Looking at them now from my adult perspective, they’re generally better-illustrated and more thoughtfully plotted than many other children’s books, especially ones that garnered similar popularity (looking at you, Little Critter).

For example, The Berenstain Bears and the Truth is hardly a masterpiece, but its message is more nuanced than you might expect if you’ve never read The Berenstain Bears before. Essentially, Brother and Sister break Mama’s favorite lamp while playing around the house, then spin a ridiculous lie about how it got broken. Reading it now, it’s clear Mama and Papa know what happened right from the start and they give the cubs every chance to do the right thing and accept responsibility. Moreover, once the cubs do accept responsibility, that’s not enough for Mama and Papa. Telling the truth in and of itself is good, but what Mama and Papa insist to the cubs is that trust matters and that the lamp is much less valuable than their integrity.

So, what you might not realize, unless you have young children in the household now, is that there are more Berenstain Bears books that kept on coming out into the 90s, 2000s, and 2010s. And unfortunately, given the sheer output of the series, there have been some serious duds, particularly in the later years.

While Papa Bear’s racism in The Berenstain Bears’ New Neighbors was notable enough to warrant a mention in Jan Berenstain’s New York Times obituary, the one that I came across in a bookstore recently and couldn’t believe is still circulating is The Berenstain Bears and the Bully, which was first published in the early 1990s.

Bullying deserves to be taken seriously because children can be vicious and victims often don’t want to appear even weaker by asking for help. Moreover, it should have been right up The Berenstain Bears alley, especially because they’d established Too-Tall as the leader of a bunch of cubs who instill fear in Brother, Freddie, and others, so dealing with Too-Tall’s behavior and providing children with the tools they could apply in their own lives could have easily been the central premise of a story.

The Berenstains went in a different direction.

Instead, they created a new character, a female cub named Tuffy, to bully sister with physical harm. If you thought Mama and Papa, or a teacher, would give Sister sound advice on how to deal with this problem, perhaps sharing that it happened to them when they were cubs, you would be wrong. Instead, Brother takes it upon himself to teach Sister how to box, and so when Tuffy rushes at Sister looking for a fight, Sister ducks and socks the other cub in the face, giving her a bloody nose.

They get hauled to the principal’s office, and here the story dives into bizarre territory. While waiting on a bench together, Tuffy shares that her parents will probably hit her, making Sister contemplate whether Tuffy acts this way because her parents do. Mama and Papa come to pick Sister up, Tuffy gets a week without recess and has to see the school psychologist, and… that’s it.

No, really. That’s it!

I could try to suggest that this story is a “product of its time” (published in 1993-ish, though the Bear Family often appears to have a 1950s rural aesthetic), or that it represents the received wisdom of a certain set of subcultures that happens to conflict with the values held by cultures with a tighter grip on the dominant national narrative, or that it’s a meta-commentary on the futility of trying to solve bullying on a child’s level.

But I don’t believe any of that, because it seems much more likely a bunch of people honestly thought the best lesson in a children’s book about bullying is that sometimes kids are mean because they have bad parents. What’s mystifying is why this book is still in print.

(Photo: "Berenstain Bears - National Museum of Play, Rochester" by Ellen Forsyth | cc-licensed CC BY-SA 2.0)