When I was maybe 4 or 5, I remember going to the dentist.
I know it can't have been my first ever trip to the dentist, so maybe it was a visit to a new dentist after we moved, because I remember wondering what it would be like. More specifically, I remember the then-crushing disappointment as I realized the dentist did not, in fact, have a special kid-sized chair for me to sit in while he cleaned my teeth, like in the Berenstain Bears.
Maybe they weren't the first books that were ever read to me, but I bet they were close. I don't remember not having read something about Papa, Mama, Brother and Sister Bear, the family created by authors Stan and Jan Berenstain.
Even while I'm writing this column, I can't imagine reading The Berenstain Bears without adding "by Stan and Jan Berenstain" in my mom's voice, like it's part of the title and not the names of the authors.
Jan Berenstain, who was the only surviving member of that original pair after her husband died in 2005, died on Feb. 24 at the age of 88. Up until I saw the news appear online last Monday, I hadn't really thought about either of the Berenstains being actual people.
With more than 330 books in the Berenstain Bears series, I'd always just assumed Stan and Jan had written the first couple and then handed the actual work of writing off to a collection of ghost writers, like The Baby-sitters Club novels. But the Berenstains wrote and illustrated the series together.
While I'm not going to argue that "The Berenstain Bears and the Week at Grandma's" has had the same emotional impact on me as say "The Chronicles of Narnia" or "Treasure Island" did, those simple picture books did make a difference in my childhood.
In the way that I loved hearing stories about fantastic adventures because they were so different from my life, I loved the Berenstain Bears because their family seemed so much like mine.
Most of the problems and situations Brother and Sister Bear encountered, I also had to face as a kid - arguments with friends and siblings, first slumber parties, facing your fears even if that fear is just going to school for the first time. When the Bear family learned about pollution, my school projects all took on a slight environmental twist. When they learned that too much vacation or too much birthday party isn't so much a good thing, I had had the same experience.
It was comforting to know that Sister Bear had trouble being excluded by Brother and his friends in "No Girls Allowed," when they wouldn't let her come play in their secret clubhouse in the woods. So, with the help of Mama and Papa, she built her own clubhouse and invited the boys in when they saw how much fun the girls club was having.
Incidentally, barbecued honeycomb and salmon has remained one of the most delicious-sounding food combinations in my mind, thanks to that book, despite the fact that I don't usually like fish.
Really those books are about teaching kids to take positive actions to counter their problems in ways that an actual kid, like me, could carry out. Sure it might be more exciting to read about the Boxcar Children solving mysteries, but the simplicity of having your very own problems played out by characters you trust is a comfort I'm glad I didn't have to do without.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.