From the cover of "The Berenstain Bears: God Bless Our Country"
From the cover of "The Berenstain Bears: God Bless Our Country"

Since when are the Berenstain Bears evangelical Christians — and do I still want them in our neighborhood library?

At our local library, they have stowed away all the toys in the children’s section and ended in-person story time. But they still let you in for half an hour to pick out books, so that’s what I do every week with my 8-year-old son on one of the days when he does school from home.

Nate’s taste in reading runs from the sophisticated (recently he asked if he could read the New Yorker) to the juvenile, and on this day he pulled all the Berenstain Bears books off the shelf and was ready to check out a dozen of them. I sorted through them to help him narrow down his choices; many of the titles were familiar to me from my childhood: “The Berenstain Bears’ Report Card Trouble,” “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food,” “The Berenstain Bears and the Week at Grandma’s.”

But I also was on guard for new titles in the series that I didn’t want him to check out, and sure enough, I pulled one out of the pile: “The Berenstain Bears: God Bless Our Country.” It has a verse from the Book of Matthew on the inside cover and is part of the Berenstain Bears “Living Lights” series, whose books are labeled as “faith” stories.

It’s jarring to many that the Berenstain Bears have become evangelical Christians, especially since a lot of people assumed that Stan and Jan Berenstain, the original authors, were Jewish. In fact, Stan Berenstain was Jewish, and his wife, Jan, was from an Episcopalian family. They started their series about Mama, Papa, Brother and Sister Bear living together in a treehouse “on a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country” in 1962, and for decades the Bears were firmly secular. That changed in the mid-2000s, when Stan and Jan’s son Mike, a practicing Christian, took a greater role in the series and started a parallel version of the books under the Living Lights imprint for religious readers.

Because I knew this background, I was able to sneak away the book I didn’t want Nate to check out. But I wondered whether other patrons would unknowingly check out the evangelical Berenstain Bears book or whether the library staff even realized it was part of the collection.

So as we were leaving, I mentioned it to the children’s librarian. “I’m not telling you what to do about it, or even complaining,” I said. “I just know that, personally, I don’t want my child to be proselytized to at the library.” She asked me to leave the book on her desk so she could look at it. And that was that.

Except that a few days later, I happened to be speaking on the phone to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I was researching how schools and youth librarians diversify their collections, and we were talking about the fact that books highlighting racial diversity and with LBGTQ themes are challenged at a higher rate than other books. Parents often cite sexual content and language when challenging books, and I could never imagine myself as one of those parents who would challenge a library book because I thought it was inappropriate. If anything, when it’s time for my children to be corrupted, I’d prefer that they be corrupted by books.

But I had just told a youth librarian that a book wasn’t appropriate for the children’s section. So I asked Caldwell-Stone about it.

She didn’t side with me.

“That’s the same kind of objection you would get to LGBTQ books,” she said.

She meant that some parents don’t want LGBTQ books in a library collection because they don’t think it’s right for their child to be looking at other “appropriate” books and then pick up one that promotes lifestyles they don’t agree with. Just like I don’t want my kids to be innocently browsing the Berenstain Bears oeuvre and then pick up the one title that quotes from the New Testament.

Caldwell-Stone said that books should be organized appropriately within the collection, and that every patron has a right to ask for a book to be reviewed to make sure it falls within the collection criteria of the library. But she also said that public libraries have a mandate to be inclusive and responsive to their communities, and that just as this wouldn’t exclude LGBTQ books, it shouldn’t necessarily exclude the Berenstain Bears Living Lights books.

And, most importantly, she advised that the best way to screen books is to have honest conversations with your child about the standards that you have for your family. A conversation that, honestly, I was trying to avoid when I sneaked “God Bless Our Country” out of Nate’s sight.

Intellectual honesty, huh? I guess I can agree to that.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.