Bears, doctors, dentists and strangers

Jan and Stan Berenstain created 300 or so Berenstain Bears books. We’ve only read a tiny fraction of them. Among these, there are three that I’ve found useful as tools to discuss certain prickly topics with my kids:


The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor


The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist


The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers


I’ll admit right now that I’m not generally a big fan of The Berenstain Bears, mainly because I don’t enjoy the writing that much. But these three are not a bad read (unlike the odd and stultifying The Berenstain Bears Lend a Helping Hand and The Berenstain Bears Meet Santa Bear). And I really do believe that the Dentist and Doctor ones helped Nica feel more comfortable about going to the real dentist and doctor.

More recently, I’ve been reading the Strangers one from time to time. Nica will soon be a kindergartener, and she is pretty self-reliant and independent, qualities I encourage. But the world is what it is, and as a parent I can’t help but worry that she will be too friendly and open with the wrong person. On one hand, you want your kid to be confident and unafraid of people, but on the other, you want her to be cautious and, well, safe. It’s a tough balance to teach, and this book has helped me start a discussion about how to deal with strangers.

What I’m most impressed with is that the book encompasses many aspects of this topic; it doesn’t just say “Don’t talk to strangers” and leave it at that. I also appreciate its emphasizing that chances are, a “cub” will not meet any dangerous people at all but that she needs to learn to be cautious nonetheless. The lessons are exemplified by Sister and Brother Bear. Sister is the overly friendly one who ends up becoming paranoid after a too-scary lesson from Papa Bear; and Brother Bear is the more reserved cub who ends up in a situation where he lets down his guard too much. By having the two cubs go through opposite experiences, the authors were able to address that whole gray area in between the extremes. And then Mama Bear brings it home with a lesson using, yep, a barrel of apples, to show that a misshapen one is not always a “bad apple”; a perfectly normal-looking apple can contain a worm.

Personally, I think the book does the job thoroughly without being horribly pedantic or frightening. They do include a list of “Rules for Cubs” at the end of the book, which I found to be very well thought out as well.


Ham’s current top 10 books

These are the books Ham (19 mos) is constantly pestering me to read him really interested in these days.


1) Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

A classic. I am not a fan of Eric Carle’s art, myself, but clearly most people, especially kids, dig it. I love reading this one aloud—very fun. Ham is obsessed with this book right now and will “read” it to himself after I’ve read it to him four times in a row.


2) The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear

A beautifully illustrated, adorable little story about a mouse that is getting conned (by the reader!) into sharing a strawberry. Ham coos and squeals while I read this to him.


3) Tickle the Duck!

The appeal is obvious.


4) The Little Engine That Could

It’s not the positive message or the lovely story that Ham is after. There’s a small Humpty Dumpty that appears on several pages, and every time Ham points him out, I am to sing the Humpty Dumpty song. Here are two examples of Mr. Dumpty’s cameos:

Ham even noticed this one.


5) Kitten’s First Full Moon

Kitten mistakes the reflection of the moon on the water for a bowl of milk. Much hardship ensues. Ham really feels for the kitten and is thrilled for her when she gets her bowl of milk in the end. The art is so simple, bold and high-contrast, both my kids enjoyed this book even as infants.


6) When I Feel Sad

Are you trying to tell me something, Ham?


7) Goldilocks and the Three Bears

This version of the story doesn’t stray too far from the original, but the snappy writing and slick illustrations make it feel fresh—and very funny! I especially love the way Goldilocks is portrayed (as the brat that she is). Ham understands a lot of the story, surprisingly, and he thinks Goldilocks is a riot.


8) I Am a Bunny

I Am A Bunny Board Book

Simple and sweet descriptions of what Nicholas the bunny does during each season. The illustrations are typical Richard Scarry—darling and gorgeous. Ham loves pointing at the animals and learning their names. When reading this to the kids, I often get the urge to put on my manliest voice and say “I AM BUNNY.” “NO, I AM BUNNY!” “NO, I AM BUNNY.” But the kids wouldn’t get it. So, I resist the urge. It’s tough being a mother.


9) Chugga Chugga Choo Choo


Ham loves looking at the cool art and repeating the whoo-whoo and choo-choo sounds, but there is another perk for Ham: There is a Humpty Dumpty in this, too! I had no idea Mr. Dumpty liked to ride the rails so much.


10) Big Girls Use the Potty!

I don’t know where Ham found this, but this is one of the books I used to read to Nica when I was toilet-training her. Even though this book does not show a single toilet—only potties—Ham has gleaned that they’re basically the same thing. So, he has become fascinated by the toilet and keeps wanting to stick his hand in the bowl. Also, he now thinks that when his sister is on the can, it is a great time and place to socialize with her. I really gotta hide this book.

The Way I Feel books: for the dark side of 3

People talk about the Terrible Twos, but I see their Terrible Twos and raise them the Trying Threes. When Nica turned 3, she became very willful, stubborn and disturbingly moody. Starting school was part of the problem: As much as she loved preschool, it was a lot of change for a sensitive little kid. Of course, this is all normal, and I knew that her outbursts and her acts of defiance were her first clumsy steps toward becoming an independent individual. Knowing this did not make it any easier to deal with the little savage.

Her teachers told me she was an angel. But even as we drove back home after I picked her up, I could feel the transformation happening.

By the time I pulled into our garage, Nica would be in a foul mood—sometimes surly, sometimes just whiny. Sometimes she’d suddenly burst into tears. I called that her Holly Hunter moment (ever see Broadcast News?). Once the tumult passed, Nica would revert back to her usual sweet, funny self. We were living with a crazy person.

And then, just as things were starting to settle down, Ham was born. Nica was suddenly up to three Holly Hunters a day, and anything—a misunderstood word, the wrong spoon, an itchy spot on her arm—could set her off. I had many talks with her, trying to explain what was happening, why Mommy had to help the baby sometimes, how much Mommy and Daddy loved her and would always. I gave her as many hugs and kisses as I could and cuddled or played with her whenever the baby was asleep or chillin’ in his baby seat. Her dad made a point of spending all his available time with her, hung out with her and only her as soon as he got home from work. But of course it was never enough; by having a baby, we had ruined her life.

Around this time, I started getting some The Way I Feel books: When I Feel AngryWhen I Feel SadWhen I Feel JealousWhen I Feel Good about Myself and When I Care about Others.

And I must say, even though obviously they did not solve Nica’s problems (i.e., they did not make Ham disappear or clone Mommy), they did help me help her identify what she was feeling, see that it was perfectly normal to have these feelings, and learn ways to deal with them. The books offer good examples through sweet drawings featuring various furry creatures. The best part of all is that, even though the pictures are darling and the prose child-friendly, the books somehow manage to avoid being pukey.

Oh, pukey children’s books. So many of them.

Anyway, today is Nica’s first day of school, and I’m confident this year there will be very few Holly Hunter moments. She’s a big girl now, after all—yay, 4!—and she loves her little brother. Most days.