By Jacob Newman
Those of us who grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s probably remember The Berenstain Bears fondly. Now that I have children of my own, I’ve been reading the books with them, and they enjoy them as much as I did when I was 4 years old. However, as an adult, I can’t help but notice the often prescriptivist and dogmatic tone. Subtle, these books are not . . .
Many times, the books provide a good and child friendly message, such as “The Trouble with Pets”, which has a well done account of both the benefits and responsibilities of caring for a dog. Then there is “Too Much Junk Food”, which leaves the message that the only acceptable snacks are dried fruit and carrot sticks. When I spotted “The Berenstain Bears and NO GUNS ALLOWED” on Amazon, I had to order it to see how this very complex issue was handled.
This book was issued as part of the Big Chapter Books series, which is aimed at older elementary school children rather than the preschool set that the picture books target. The book was produced as a response to the Columbine High incident. A glance at the chapter headings gives a feel for where this is heading.
1. The Culture of Violence
2. The Culture of Cliques
7. Guns in the Night
8. Mothers Against Violence
To summarize the plot, the teachers at the Bear Country school are troubled by the “culture of violence” (a phrase used dozens of times in a 105 page book) at the school. The teachers feel that violent TV and video games are to blame and call a community meeting with the mayor, the principal, and the chief of police to discuss the matter.
Mama Bear loudly supports Mrs. Bruin, who says “I think guns are awful! I don’t know why folks have to have them!” Farmer Ben complains he needs his shotgun to protect his chickens from varmints. Old Mose Mosby, the hermit who lives in the bog, proclaims that “they can have my thirty-seven guns when they pry my cold, dead fingers from their barrels.” He also comments that when the Martians invade, nobody should come to him for armed help.
In the mean time, the cubs are assigned a school project to discuss an invention of significance that has made an impact on bearkind. Too-Tall Grizzly, resident bully, and Nerdy Ferdy, resident geek, must work together and compromise on a list of inventions. “When Teacher Bob read the lists, his heart sank. The invention on both lists was… GUNS!”
Whilst the cubs watch violent TV, play cops and robbers, and play violent video games, Mama thinks there are prowlers in their shed. The police are summoned and chase off some raccoons. After the police leave, Mama proclaims “I have to admit that guns do have their proper place – and that place is in the hands of the police.”
Too-Tall and Ferdy build a repeating rubber band gun out of parts they take from Too-Tall’s father’s junkyard. Too-Tall’s father thinks there are rats sneaking around in his junk and shoots at them with his “rat gun”. Ferdy keeps his cool while Too-Tall panics, losing face in front of his gang of bullies. He decides to have revenge on Ferdy.
On presentation day, he pulls a gun on Ferdy. The SWAT team is summoned, while Too-Tall shoots Ferdy with his realistic water gun, and Ferdy shoots back with the rubber band gun. The SWAT team disarms everyone. Scoldings are passed out and everyone learns a lesson. Papa Bear proclaims that “Anger to a gun is like a lit match to gasoline: when they are put together, bad things can happen.”
Sister proclaims that “I think guns are bad, bad, bad, and they should be wiped from the face of the earth.” Mama reminds her that the police certainly need guns. Brother declares that he’s outgrown gun games. Mama concludes the book with the following thought: “while the culture of violence was a big and important problem, it wasn’t going to be a simple one to solve.”
The book is typical of the statist, gun prohibitionist camp. The message is simple: guns are evil unless they are in the hands of the police. People who have guns are either hicks or nuts, and violent TV and video games will turn you into a psychopath. It’s all as subtle as a ton of bricks.
It’s too bad, really. The Berenstains are capable of writing a decent and reasoned book, but here they’ve toed the standard statist party line. It’s not a balanced approach, it’s pure agenda. The authors had the opportunity to capitalize on their market and brand recognition to write a reasoned approach to real issues of violence in schools, which could have had an impact and made for an opportunity for real discussion, but instead they made this.
Parents might pick up a book like this thinking fondly of memories of Berenstain Bears from their childhood, but parents who are People of the Gun should stay far, far away.