The Berenstain Bears is the collective title of a large series of children's picture books (I would hazard age 5-9) about how everything enjoyable in life is wrong, like eating way too much junk food, biting your nails, or being bigoted toward ugly people. First impressions and the name seem to imply that they were written by that school of eminent German philosopher who thinks everything is gross and unacceptable but suicide — much in vogue in the years between the two great wars, but their numbers have since been unaccountably depleted somehow, and Stan and Jan Berenstain, the authors, may be the last of their ranks: tied, as the bodhisattvas are, to the fallen world only by the desire to help others reach their own enlightened state of mind. Nevertheless this is false; and a closer examination reveals a significantly less dour, almost mystical, purpose to these works.
The protagonists of the books are, unexpectedly, a family of bears — the eponymous »Berenstain Bears«, although that isn't their actual surname; in keeping with the best principles of picture books, their surname is simply Bear, and their given names actually appear to be Mama, Papa, Brother, and Sister. (I believe there is also a baby, but the baby is largely incidental, being pre-moral.) Their mission in life is to bungle by way of excess zest for life, see their mistake, and then repent and turn back to the simple austerity in which they began. In this procedure the mother (again, quite in accordance with the most ancient precepts) is most often the sensible restorer of the status quo, while the father, though often sound also, is a weaker and more comical figure, subject himself to the lures of the world's vices; the children, of course, are children, forever acting by the triplet horrors of instinct, curiosity, and common sense; and needing to be pulled back from this yawning abysm by the firm parental hand.
Some of the adventures which we are instructed are foul and immoral are really quite excellent, depicted with a gorgeous appetite which might at first seem incongruous but which the keen eye soon discovers to exist solely in order to make the authors' visceral glee in condemning it all the greater. Here is the grandeur of life, they seem to say — is it not magnificent? You must reject it; you cannot have any of it. You're a bad person if you enjoy these wonderful things.
Take for example the secret clubhouse into which no girls are allowed, in the mysteriously titled No Girls Allowed: this is an amazing construction, in a thicket, surrounded by a moat and provisioned with a working drawbridge; it is the dream of every boy whose blood is red, and probably also of most boys whose blood is yellow, lilac, or some kind of beastly inhuman syrup. It is, in short, magnificent; and it is crowned by its restricted access, the token of real power, genuine control — the sign that it is theirs, really theirs. This of course is not permitted. Autonomy is wrong, even for a game. The narrative takes its course as implacably and depressively as in an Ibsen play — although be it noted that besides the sour moralism they have little in common. Ibsen's characters chafe against everything good and wholesome; he means us to understand for heroes the miserable, shattered wretches who find happiness stifling in itself, who try to break free from joy in favor of an abject existence — and then, he shows us with what appears to be totally genuine, unfeigned shock, they somehow come to grief! Fumbling for an explanation to this inexplicable, baffling outcome, Ibsen can only think to blame society; but the Berenstains are subtler far than that.
But we will return to that point; let us for now examine another example, the junk food in Too Much Junk Food (another inscrutable, gnomic title), already alluded to above: how wonderfully appetizing it is! What shapes, what colors! Who wouldn't want to gorge on it?! We are instructed in no uncertain terms that no good and sensible person would want to. Who could fail to enjoy the grand flavors, the variable textures, indeed even the earthy sensation of gravity that follows on eating oneself quite resolutely past satiety? Like St. Francis of Assisi, the book informs us that a truly good person would fail to do so, and failing that, the reader, tainted by original sin, must at least exhibit sufficient asceticism as to refrain anyway.
Or again, what magnificent array, what a panoply of invention, is not exhibited in the action figures of The Bad Dream! (At this point in the series, as you can plainly see, the titles have descended into such cryptic obliquity it approaches the kabbalistic.) Brother Bear's desire to have a large number of them is quite understandable; but this, of course, is again forbidden, and this time by the most beastly of enemies: his own soul. For, having obtained the foremost of the gaudy treasures, he begins of course to suffer nightmares — the flapping vexilla of a sick conscience. It seems that at this point he has begun to internalize the larger lesson.
What, then, is this lesson?
If you ask your friends and acquaintances — in a nonjudgmental way, of course — you will find that a startling number of quite young boys fantasize about killing those who wronged them. It is an instinctual and obvious pleasure to imagine driving the sword into your enemy's chest; and how much moreso to really do it! Simply put, children are little savages, and a boy grows up to become civilized only because and when we teach him that he must forsake these elemental pleasures of plain and grove, which his happy ancestors took for granted. For a man cannot enjoy the stranger, wilder fruits of civilization unless he first give up the human things; and this sacrifice is the foundation, as you will find, of all notions of magic. And it is this, the first wobbly step on that austere and self-denying road, that the bears provide; the first incantation of that dreadful hidden art, the sorcery Society.
In short, these books are an eminently civilizing influence. If you want children who will march in line, feed beggars, and obey their bosses, these are books you should read to them.