Stanley Berenstain and Janice Grant met in art school in Philadelphia in 1941. Sixty-one years and approximately 250 books later, they have co-written their autobiography. The following is an excerpt from that autobiography; we pick up here in the late 1950s. After joint careers as magazine cartoonists, and as authors of several bestselling adult books (including Marital Blitz and Have a Baby, My Wife Just Had a Cigar ), the Berenstains decided they wanted to try their hands at a children's book.
An early attempt to enter the field of children's books had proved awkward, to say the least. It had happened while we were working with Al Hart on Baby Makes Four, a sequel to Berenstains' Baby Book. When we mentioned that we were thinking of trying a children's book, Al pointed out that Macmillan was a leading publisher of children's books. He would be happy to arrange a meeting with the editor-in-chief of the division.
If the lobby of the Macmillan building at 60 Fifth Avenue, with its ascending double staircase hung with portraits of Nobel Prize winners, was imposing, the office of the head of the children's division was downright intimidating. She greeted us from behind a large, well-ordered desk that sat at the rear of an inner-sanctum-like office, hung with original art from the many Caldecott winners she had published.
"Mr. Hart has shown me your work," she said, pointing to a small stack of magazines on her desk. We nodded. "He informs me that you wish to explore the idea of doing books for children. And I understand that you have achieved some success with your magazine and other work." We nodded. "But—and I don't know how to say this except to speak plainly—as nearly as I can tell," she said accusatorily, "you are cartoonists; your drawings are cartoons."
"Er, well, yes," said Stan. "You see, we've noticed that young children enjoy cartoons, so it was our thought—"
"Yes. But, Mr. Berenstain," said the lady behind the well-ordered desk in the office hung with exquisite Caldecott art, "as I'm sure you and Mrs. Berenstain know, children like many things that aren't good for them. . . ."
We wouldn't have been surprised if she had pulled a lever that tripped a trapdoor and sent us screaming down a chute that delivered us into the sewer under Fifth Avenue, where former pet baby alligators flushed down New York toilets were waiting to devour us.
That's not what happened. But that's how we felt. What happened was that we beat an ignominious retreat back to Philadelphia.
But wait! we thought. Maybe doing a children's book isn't such a bad idea after all. Dr. Seuss is a cartoonist, and he's doing wonderful books for children.
We knew from our first noodlings that our book would be about bears—a family of bears. We knew they would live in a tree. We don't know how we knew, but we knew. We knew we'd have three characters: a bluff, overenthusiastic Papa Bear who wore bib overalls and a plaid shirt and was a little like Stan, a wise Mama Bear who wore a blue dress with white polka dots and a similarly polka-dotted dust cap and was very like Jan, and a bright, lively little cub who was a lot like Leo.
Michael, not yet one, didn't make the cut.
It took us about two months to write and illustrate the manuscript of our children's book. During that period, two things happened that governed the fate of both the manuscript and its authors. First, a group of editors with whom we were working decided we needed an agent. Their reason: too many legal questions were arising in the course of our helter-skelter cartooning/writing career. Did the "next book" clause in our contract with Macmillan, our hardback publisher, cover original paperbacks? Did we own the book rights to our McCall's cartoons or did McCall's? Was the "greeting books" project we were working on with Bantam in conflict with our Hallmark arrangement?
While the idea of giving up 10 percent of our earnings to an agent wasn't anathema, it was worrisome to a couple of penny-counting overgrown Depression-era kids. However, given the increasingly complicated job of negotiating contracts, the idea was beginning to sound attractive. But we didn't know anything about agents. How would we find one? We asked our various editors—Al Hart at Macmillan, Arlene Donovan and Marc Jaffe at Dell, and Knox Burger at Fawcett—for suggestions. They each gave us a list of three or four agents. The names meant nothing to us. But there was the odd circumstance that one name appeared on all of the lists.
"Who is Sterling Lord? How come he's on all the lists?" we asked Arlene Donovan (who went on to become a leading movie producer, most notably, perhaps, of Places in the Heart, which won two Academy Awards).
"Well, it sort of makes sense," said Arlene. "What are you two? Are you cartoonists who write or are you writers who cartoon? You're neither fish nor fowl. And Sterling is . . . well, flexible."
"Flexible how?" we asked.
"He's open to trying things. Right now, for instance, he's booking Jack Kerouac into coffeehouses for poetry readings."
"Oh," we said.
The other thing that happened was The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss's epoch-making response to the "Why Johnny can't read" controversy that was sweeping the country. In 72 pages of rhymed, limited-vocabulary text, Dr. Seuss changed the way children learn to read in America. The book was so successful that it led to the development of Beginner Books, a revolutionary new line of easy-to-read children's books. Beginner Books was a new division of Random House. Its trademark (and battle cry) was "I can read it all by myself," and its president and editor-in-chief was Theodor Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.
Beginner Books sounded like a good destination for our own children's book. Our would-be Beginner Book was called Freddy Bear's Spanking. It told the story of Freddy Bear, who, having misbehaved, attempts to negotiate himself out of a spanking by proposing a series of alternative punishments.
"Is there anything you'd like me to do for starters?" asked Sterling at our first meeting. When we told him about our grand plan for Freddy Bear's Spanking, he said, "Fine. I'll give Phyllis a call."
"Who's Phyllis?" we asked.
"Phyllis is Bennett's wife," he explained to the two hicks from Philadelphia. "She's publisher at Beginner Books."
We did know that Bennett Cerf was chairman and co-founder of Random House. We watched him guess occupations every Sunday night as a panelist on What's My Line?
We sent Sterling the Freddy Bear manuscript. A couple days later he called and said he'd had a nice lunch with Phyllis. She loved our work in McCall's and was sending a contract over by messenger.
Wow! Whoosh! So that's how it was done! You got yourself an agent who was on a first-name, let's-have-lunch basis with Phyllis Cerf and just like that, abracadabra, presto chango, a contract was sent over by messenger.
It was easier than falling off a log. Unfortunately, it was the same log we'd fallen off of when Stan sold the first cartoons he'd ever done to Norman Cousins, of the Saturday Review of Literature.
We Meet the Cat
About two weeks after returning the signed contract, we were summoned to New York for a meeting with the editorial board of Beginner Books. The board consisted of Ted (Dr. Seuss); Helen Palmer, Ted's wife and a longtime children's author in her own right; and Phyllis Cerf.
We packed about five of Leo's Dr. Seuss books to be autographed, took the "Pennsy" up to New York, and cabbed over to Random House's headquarters on Madison Avenue. Random House occupied half of a turn-of-the-century mansion (the other half was occupied by the Archdiocese of New York).
A stylish receptionist seated at an elegant antique table instructed us to take the elevator to the fourth floor, where we would shift to a second elevator that would take us to the sixth floor. We weren't to worry about the construction that was going on. They were still working on that part of the building. She hadn't been up there, but she understood that there were signs. "Just follow the signs."
The first elevator was rickety; the second was rickety and crotchety. We managed to extricate ourselves from its cagelike confines and climb out onto the sixth floor, which was, indeed, under construction. Hand-painted signs, clearly from the hand of the Cat himself, directed us to a newly carpentered staircase. The first said, "etaoinshrdlu" (which we found out later was the automatic sequence linotype operators used to fill out blank lines). The second said, "This way to Dr. Schmerecase."
"Hi, Berenstains! Come on up," said a tall figure silhouetted in the doorway at the top of the stairs. It was Ted.
Though Ted didn't wear a big red-and-white-striped top hat like the Cat in the Hat, he shared many characteristics with his feline alter ego. Like the Cat, he could be charming, courtly, congenial, and delightful to be with; also like the Cat, he could be demanding, dismissive, and downright difficult. After many of our early meetings with Ted, we would head for home spent, drained, and exhausted, but also exhilarated, excited, and challenged. We would climb onto the train, fall into a seat, and just sit and stare. The train wouldn't be out of the tunnel before Jan would say, "I wonder what Ted thinks of us."
After a bit more staring, Stan would say, "You know, I don't think he thinks about us at all. I think all he thinks about is the work."
That's what Ted was about: the work. Every aspect of it: the title, the endpapers, the title page, the meter (he could spot a faulty iamb in your pentameter from a mile away), the rhyme (he was death on convenience rhymes), the type, the paper, the words (every single one), and the pictures (every single one).
Our first meeting began with introductions and pleasantries: Would we like coffee or tea? This was the old Villard Mansion, they explained, and these were the butler's quarters, so they had all the comforts of home. Leo's books were autographed. We compared notes on our war experiences. Captain Geisel had worked on Army training films in Hollywood. Major Frank Capra had been his boss. Stan told about being a medical artist. But Jan got the most points for having been an aircraft riveter.
A slightly disquieting sense of déjà vu hung over the exchange of pleasantries. No wonder. We were literally surrounded by Freddy Bear's Spanking. It was plastered all over the walls—thumbtacked in sequence to large corkboards mounted on three walls of the small room.
"It's called storyboarding," explained Ted. "It's a movie technique. I learned it from Frank Capra. It really lets you get a sense of how the story's working." If it was good enough for Frank Capra, it was good enough for us. Capra was merely the director of some of the best movies ever made, including It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
"But," said Ted, "before we get into the internal workings of the story, Phyllis and Helen and I want to talk a little bit about these bears of yours."
Internal workings? What internal workings? It's just a funny book about these bears who live in a tree and wear overalls and polka-dot dresses.
"We like your bears. We think they're fun," he continued. "We like the idea of a family."
"And we love your drawings," said Helen.
Hooray for Helen.
"But we need to know more about them. Who are these bears? What are they about? Why do they live in a tree? What does Papa do for a living? What kind of pipe tobacco does he smoke?"
Ted smoked. We didn't. There was no way Papa Bear was going to smoke.
"As I said, we like the idea of a family," Ted went on. "But just what sort of family is it? What roles do they play?"
Roles? What roles can they play? They're bears.
"I'm concerned about Mama," said Phyllis. "She doesn't really have much to do in the story. She just sort of stands around."
We hadn't thought about it, but it was true. Mama was there, but Papa and Small Bear were the stars.
"True," said Ted. "But I really don't have a problem with that."
It became clear early on that anything Ted didn't have a problem with wasn't going to be a problem. It also became clear as we worked with Ted (we eventually did 17 books with him) that although he accepted certain broad, general ideas about story construction—that a story needed a beginning, a middle, and an end, for example—he wasn't an editor in any conventional sense of the term. Indeed, he was often dismissive of conventional ideas about story construction. Ted sometimes saw solutions where others saw problems. That was the case with Phyllis's comment about Mama not having much of a role in our story.
"I don't have a problem with Mama being a spear carrier," said Ted. "As a matter of fact, I see the father-and-son relationship as being the heart of your story. Relationships between fathers and sons are one of the great themes of literature."
What literature? We just wanted to do a funny little book about these crazy bears. But somehow we'd wandered into a symposium on the great themes of literature. It was slowly dawning on us that Ted took these little 72-page, limited-vocabulary, easy-to-read books just as seriously as if he were editing the Great American Novel.
"It seems to me," said Ted, "that you've got something pretty interesting going with Papa and Small Bear. Who do you see in those roles?"
We managed not to say, "Huh?" We asked Ted what he meant.
He replied that there was a saying in the movie business that if you cast your show well, you were more than halfway home. He illustrated his point with a horror story from his own experience. He had done a movie after the war. It was a fantasy called The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. Its two major characters were a 99-year-old man and an 11-year-old girl. "I wrote a helluva script and it could have been a helluva movie. They not only changed the girl to a boy, they stuck in Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, two broken-down, middle-aged nightclub comics. It was a disaster!"
He was still steaming with the memory of it.
"So you see what I mean about casting. . . . Okay, who are you casting as Papa? Guy Kibbee? Frank Morgan? William Bendix? And who do you see as Small Bear? Roddy McDowall? Freddy Bartholomew? Mickey Rooney?"
We sensed that Ted was dead serious. We had to come up with an answer. We reached back into our collective memory of favorite movies and came up with a movie that got us over Ted's casting hump. It was called The Champ. It starred Wallace Beery as an overlarge, trouble-prone, loving dad and Jackie Cooper as his bright, resourceful little son.
"Do you remember that old movie The Champ?" asked Jan.
"Yeah," said Ted. "With Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper."
"Well, that's how we see Papa and Small Bear. Papa is Wallace Beery and Small Bear is Jackie Cooper."
Ted pursed his lips and looked off into the distance of the small room.
". . . Yeah. . . . That could work. . . . Okay. Let's get into the guts of your story. There's a helluva lot wrong with it."
We moved to the wall display of Freddy Bear's Spanking, where Ted conducted a guided tour of the thousand and one things wrong with our book.
It was too long. It was too complicated. Didn't we realize that these books were supposed to help kids learn to read? Remember the Beginner Books slogan: "I can read it all by myself." We had too many contractions. We had too many female rhymes. We didn't know rhymes had gender. But they did. Female rhymes were those that ended with soft sounds, like "bear/there" and "you/too." Male rhymes were those that ended with hard consonants, like "cat/hat" and "hop/pop." The sentences were much too long—some of them looked like the long, long trail a-winding. "Think short sentences—easy words and short sentences. Think beginning, middle, and end. As the story stands now, you've got a good beginning and a good end. But your middle needs work—a lot of work. It doesn't really contribute to your story. It's just a lot of pictures. It lacks momentum. It lacks build. It lacks progression. Here's a thought about something you might want to try. I really like the idea of Small Bear trying to negotiate himself out of a spanking. Terrific idea. But as it stands, it's just a series of punishments that Small Bear prefers to the spanking. Now, that's okay as far as it goes. It's a little like when Br'er Rabbit begs Br'er Fox not to throw him into the briar patch because Br'er Rabbit likes the briar patch. But when Small Bear proposes that they punish him by making him go hunt for honey, which is something he likes, you don't go anywhere with it. It just lays here. Why don't you have Papa counter Small Bear's strategy by proposing tougher punishments? Something like . . . oh, I don't know . . . you'll think of something. That way your story can build. You see, these books need to be real page-turners. We've got to keep those kids reading. We've got to keep their little eyeballs glued to the page.
"Well, Berenstains," said Ted, coming up for air, "what do you think so far?"
What did we think? We didn't know what to think. We made some noises to the effect that, yeah, we understood what he was getting at. And, yeah, the Br'er Rabbit idea was sort of what we had in mind.
"Good," said Ted. "Now let's talk about your rhymed verse. Your scansion is pretty good. But again, it's too complicated. And your line lengths are all over the place. They won't look good on the page. Try to even them up. Also, you've got a few interior rhymes. Let's leave interior rhymes to Cole Porter and Ogden Nash. And I've counted at least 10 convenience rhymes—"
Phyllis interrupted with a suggestion. "Ted," she said, "since their rhyme doesn't work, why don't the Berenstains just forget about rhyme? Let's have them do the story in prose and then—"
"No," said Ted. "Their rhyme does work. I like their rhyme. It's got get-up-and-go. It just needs to be simplified and cleaned up a little."
The meeting was drawing to a close. Helen was taking our book down from the walls. She handed us an envelope containing the manuscript that Ted had just savaged.
But he was all smiles and warmth as he took our hands in his. "Berenstains," he said, "I can't tell you how happy I am to be working with you. I just know we're going to get a wonderful book. And Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper are perfect casting. . . . Er, how long do you think it'll take for the next draft?"
"Oh, two or three weeks," said whoever managed to recover the power of speech first. But we were thinking, Maybe never.
Down a Sunny Dirt Road: An Autobiography has just been published by Random House. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Illustrations ©2002 by Berenstain Enterprises, Inc.
Illustrations ©2002 by Berenstain Enterprises, Inc.