‘It’s Berenstain, like coffee stain or Jello stain’: Son of Berenstain Bears creators rejects parallel universe theory

After noticing that the name of a series of children’s books isn’t spelled the way they remember, some Berenstain Bears readers are grappling with the notion that perhaps they’re living in parallel universe. Nudged along by a slew of tweets from rapper El-P, a years-old conspiracy theory reemerged this month claiming that “history has been retroactively changed” and the name has been switched from Berenstein to Berenstain. In an attempt to make sense of it all, the National Post’s Jake Edmiston spoke with , the son of the late authors Stan and Jan Berenstain, who continues to write books in their stead.

Q: So, first tell me how you pronounce your last name.

A: It’s Ber-en-stain, like coffee stain or Jello stain or wine stain or whatever you want.

Q: And you’re absolutely sure?

A: Is this going to be like a satirical interview or are we doing a straight interview?

Q: No. Sorry … I was just kidding.

A: OK. OK. I kind of thought we were doing an interview where you were challenging whether I knew how to pronounce my own name.

Q: No, forgive me. So that’s how you pronounce it. But this isn’t the first time this has come up?

A: Well, actually the earliest I know about it is in my mother and father’s autobiography where my dad wrote a section about when he was in elementary school. His elementary school teacher said that his name was spelled incorrectly and that she was changing it to “Berenstein,” and that she wouldn’t recognize the spelling of his name in her class because there was no such name. So it goes back pretty far, the issue. And when I was a kid growing up, nobody pronounced it correctly. I never even tried to get people to pronounce it correctly. They always said “Berensteen” or “Bernstein” or something. I never thought much about it at the time. I just figured that, you know, people pronounce things incorrectly, and that’s just the way it is. It’s not a new issue, it’s just a common phenomenon that happens to people with oddly spelled names.

Q: So how  do you react to the thinking that the name was somehow changed?

A: People believe some really weird things. Of course, the question I come up with is: Well, does this include my grandparents birth certificates and things? Did the name change on them? On my father’s draft records from World War II, did it get changed there too? I mean, what happened here? Does my birth certificate, with the name spelled with an A, magically get changed in some alternate reality? No.

Q: So how did the Berenstain name come to be? Your website mentions that the spelling was an immigration officer’s attempt at phonetically spelling “an accented version of the traditional Jewish name ‘Bernstein’”?

A: [My great-grandparents] were Ukrainian Jews who emigrated [to the U.S.] in the late 19th century, fleeing the pogroms and persecution of Jews in Ukraine at that time. And they pronounced the name with a Slavic-coloured pronunciation. They pronounced it something like “Ber’nsheytn.” The family tradition was simply that [Berenstain] was an attempt to phonetically spell that particular pronunciation of the name.

Q: How do you think your parents would react to all of this?

A: They would think it was insane. I just think it’s silly, you know? Their first editor was Dr. Seuss, Ted Geisel. He actually was the one who coined the name “the Berenstain Bears.” That was on the second book, which was published in 1964. He put a little banner on it that said “Another adventure of the Berenstain Bears.”

Q: So this is all Dr. Seuss’s fault?

A: Exactly. My parents were never going to call it that.

Q: OK. And just to be clear, you don’t remember anything changing about your name at any point in your life?

A: Do I remember that? No. If people think that old documents and old books have magically changed from one spelling to another, then people are free to believe whatever they want to believe. But it’s really silly.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length

About Jake Edmiston