February 12, 2013

The Bike Lesson by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Bike LessonThe Bike Lesson by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Have you ever seen the Berenstain Bears like this:



No? Then you haven't seen the Berenstain Bears at their best. This was the era before every book tried to shove a ham-fisted moral down children's throats. This was the time before Papa Bear became a belligerent asshole. This was the era when Brother Bear was called Small Bear because Sister Bear hadn't been born yet.

If only this could have lasted.

Just take a moment to compare these two covers:


The image on the left bears the original character designs. The image on the right bears the new ones. (No pun intended.)

Notice the differences? For one thing, they're both smiling in the 1964 artwork (Papa Bear more so than Small Bear). But in the redesigned version, Papa Bear is suddenly racing with his brow furrowed, and Brother Bear looks scared for his life.

Now, I've only read the 1964 version, so I can't say for sure how deep these differences run. I can't tell you, for example, if the story was given the same treatment as the cover--that is, if it was altered to match the new personalities.

And they definitely have new personalities. In "Brother Bear" stories, Papa Bear is a downright jerk; he's temperamental and close-minded, and that's just the beginning. In The Bike Lesson, Papa Bear overconfident and blundering, but he means well; he's generally trying to help his son.

In modern stories, Brother Bear is a "good son", leaving Sister Bear to be the focus of many--perhaps most--of the moral dilemmas. Depending on the book, Brother Bear either overcomes his vices with his sister, or else he's downright saintly. (The "saintly" tends to show up more often in the chapter books than the picture books.) In The Bike Lesson, Small Bear is an earnest and excitable child in whose eyes his father can do no wrong.

Both characters are vastly more endearing in their earlier incarnations, which begs the question: what went wrong? What caused this dynamic shift? In-universe, one could say the entire family changed with Sister Bear's birth the way a real family would; but this didn't happen when Honey Bear was born, so it's obvious that the in-universe reason isn't the "actual" reason.

Something changed in or around the Berenstains that caused or enabled the Bears' complete redesign. I'd love to know what that something was, and I'd love to know if it extended to slightly rewriting the plot of this. Honestly, I suspect it did.

In any case, this edition of The Bike Lesson, regardless of what's in the reprinted editions, was a cute little story made more endearing by the nostalgia for a day when the Berenstains were writing Bears books I could actually stomach.

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