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'Down a Sunny Dirt Road'

Since moving into their tree house deep in Bear Country 40 years ago, the Berenstain Bears have helped children cope with first trips to the dentist, new siblings, summer camp and messy rooms.

Now, with the release of their autobiography, authors Stan and Jan Berenstain want to share a few firsts of their own - from their first college art class together to the early meetings with Dr. Seuss that grew into more than 200 books featuring the Berenstain Bears.

"Down a Sunny Dirt Road" initially alternates chapters between Stan and Jan as they unspool stories about their childhoods in Philadelphia during the Depression, and their admiration of each other's drawing at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. Their narrative voices blend as they become a writing and illustrating team with their marriage after Stan's return from service in World War II.

The publication of "Down a Sunny Dirt Road," due in bookstores Sept. 24, coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first Berenstain Bears book, "The Great Honey Hunt," in 1962.

The Berenstains, both 79, honed their family friendly humor drawing cartoons for The Saturday Evening Post, McCalls and Colliers. Examples of these early sketches and other pre-bear artwork will be included in a retrospective of the Berenstains opening in October at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa. The exhibit is curated by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

The Berenstains developed their series with children's author Theodor Geisel - better known as Dr. Seuss, then head of children's publishing at Random House - intending to teach children to read while entertaining them.

Jan Berenstain said they decided on bears because of their anthropomorphic qualities.

"Bears are a tradition in children's books. They stand up and they wear clothes and they're great fun to draw. We drew them a lot as art students. We can give them the same kind of facial expressions we put on the people we draw," she said.

They still begin every Berenstain Bear book by hand. In their home studio in Bucks County, Stan Berenstain sketches covers for a DVD collection of their animated television specials. Across the room, Jan Berenstain points out paint splatters on the floor from where some of the earlier books began. More sketches line the walls and story ideas cover the tables between them.

Much like the tree house they drew for their bears, the studio and other rooms branch off from a central entryway in their wood-sided farmhouse about 50 miles north of Philadelphia.

Two hundred forty Berenstain Bears books are in print, spanning reading levels from beginner to readers in first through fifth grades. The Berenstains' sons - Leo, a 52-year-old writer, and Michael, a 49-year-old artist - have joined the family business, so many of the more recent books are credited collectively to "The Berenstains."

More Berenstain Bears books are in the works, including one on a trip to the emergency room and another on getting a computer for the tree house. Stan and Jan Berenstain also have developed a daily, animated series based on the books that will debut on PBS in January.

Over the years, little has changed about the Berenstain Bears. Their universal experiences and quotidian dilemmas persist in popularity, despite nearly half a century of technological advances and social change.

Some issues simply aren't suitable for Bear Country, Stan Berenstain says, such as divorce, which educators have requested as a subject for the bears to explain.

"Who's going to get divorced? Mama and Papa Bear can't get divorced, or we'd be out of business. I guess the neighbors could get divorced, but one of the things kids respond to is that the bears are just like us and they're funny. It would be pretty hard to do a funny book about divorce," he said.

The bears haven't changed, and neither have their readers, Stan Berenstain says.

"Kids still tell fibs and they mess up their rooms and they still throw tantrums in the supermarket," he said. "Nobody gets shot. No violence. There are problems, but they're the kind of typical family problems everyone goes through."
By Jennifer Kay

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