“We ate our honey. We ate a lot. Now we have no honey in our honey pot.” With those 17 words, averaging just three letters in length, Jan and Stan Berenstain launched their legendary book series. They were using the methods Dr. Seuss had coached them on: rhyme, repetition, short sentences.
As head of Random House’s new publishing house for children’s books, Dr. Seuss was an eccentric, exacting boss, and the 1962 publication of their book “The Big Honey Hunt” marked the completion of a two-year editing process that had begun with the manuscript for a completely different book, “Freddy Bear’s Spanking.”
It was also a beginning, the birth of a franchise that would feature more than 300 titles and sell more than 260 million copies. The 38-year-old artists from Pennsylvania – the parents of two sons – had already enjoyed commercial success as magazine cartoonists when they dreamed up their bear family.
They had come far from their meeting on the first day of Miss Sweeney’s drawing class at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, when Stan complimented Jan’s charcoal sketch. She smiled brightly and inquired about his rendering of Zeus. “How did you manage to do all those curls in two hours?” He had been resourceful, as had she. It was a trait that would earn their mutual admiration – and growing success as young artists.
And when it came time to tell the story of Papa Bear, a fumbling father in blue overalls – “a little like Stan,” he would later write – and Mama Bear, a wise mother “very like Jan” wearing a polka-dotted dress and dust cap, they channeled that resourcefulness at the typewriter, artfully spinning those three-letter words to empower new readers with a limited set of sight words and a big imagination.
“How are you doing? Are you getting a lot? Are you getting much honey? Or are you not?”
That was the purpose of Beginner Books, which debuted in 1957 with Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat.” It drew from an editor’s list of 379 words known by early readers and used only 236, zig zagging them together into a 1,626-word book.
The 5-year-old recipients demonstrated great resourcefulness of their own by learning to read: to assign sounds to shapes, to commit them to memory and then speak them aloud, following a trail of black strokes until a story emerges.
I’ve been thinking about the value of being resourceful. By definition, it is to deal with new situations or difficulties. In action, it is to make like Dr. Seuss: to create a masterpiece from a small list of short words, to do a lot with a little. A teacher making the most of a small budget. A host opening up his modest home. A cook improvising with a half-empty fridge. A bedridden pregnant woman parenting from the mattress.
To be resourceful is to glorify the Creator, using our God-given gifts to full effect, like the servants who double their talents in Jesus’ parable.
A retired archbishop here in St. Paul proved resourceful in prayer, using three words to utter a Beginner Books-like invocation that is as simple as it is profound: “Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus. Lord Jesus, come.” There is much to learn here – for one who might expect an archbishop’s prayer to be as ornate as his garb, for one who never prayed or no longer prays or puts off prayer. Like the empowered 5-year-old reader, he hears the archbishop and realizes: I can pray! To pray those three words is to do a lot with a little. They are the final words of the New Testament, the archbishop told me. “It’s been the prayer of my life.”
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org.