Religious Conversion and the Children’s Literary Series
I first noticed it when I was a kid. Growing up a fan of the comic page, my family owned some bound book collections of comics like Doonesbury and Garfield and B.C. I rather liked the old B.C. comics by Johnny Hart, actually. In spite of the fact that characters had names like The Fat Broad and The Cute Chick, there was the ever amusing Grog (a Neanderthal in a caveman’s world) and The Apteryx, who always introduced himself as “a wingless bird with hairy feathers”.
But starting around 1984 the strip I saw in my newspaper started to change. The comic that I’d always loved started to get strangely religious. Hart, it seems, had experienced a religious conversion or renewal of some sort and suddenly it was all about the God.
I hadn’t thought much about old B.C. until the other day when I noticed that as series go, B.C. (which Matt has pointed out is ironically the ONLY comic strip to specifically say in its title that the actions in the storyline happen “Before Christ”) is not alone. Periodically there are characters and series that kids love that one day suddenly become evangelical. Sometimes as a separate series. Sometimes as part of the whole. B.C., it seems, was just part of a trend.
Now I totally understand and am fine with a series being Christian. My focus here is more on those characters that establish themselves as beloved and secular and then suddenly pull a religious conversion on their readers without much warning. I find this whole idea fascinating. How many characters have engaged in such a switch? Two immediate examples come to mind.
Meet Christian Archie
Archie comics rock. This is proven by any cursory trip to ComicCon. Find the Archie section of the conference floor and you’ll be immediately amazed by the hoards of Archie fans, young and old, that congregate there. At some point in the 21st century Archie was allowed to be cool.
However, there was an interesting moment in time when Archie and friends got super Christian, super fast. Back in the mid-1970s Archie comics staffer Al Hartley managed to do what today would be impossible. He convinced his boss John Goldwater to negotiate a deal with Spire Christian Comics. Spire would get to use the licensed Archie characters for specifically Christian comic books and the Archie name would get a leg up in the whole family friendly section of the world. So eighteen such Archie comics were created.
Vanity Fair covered Archie back in 2006 and discussed this phenomenon. The comics were never intended to circulate in the secular market, but somehow they did. For a full history of the comics themselves you can read Kliph Nesteroff’s A History of Christian Archie Comics, which gives a thorough rundown of what happened. Comics Alliance also worked up The 12 Craziest Moments From Archie’s Christian Comics. Fascinating stuff. This is a whole period of comic history I missed.
The Berenstain Bears Go to Church
While Archie flirted with Christianity in the 70s and Johnny Hart converted in the 80s, if you’re looking for 21st century Christian characters then that would have to be The Berenstain Bears.
There was nothing particularly Christian about the bears back in the days when they were created by Stan and Jan Berenstain. After all, remember that these were the same folks who penned this little ditty (which Leila at bookshelves of doom found at a flea market back in 2006):
In 2005 Stan Berenstain died and not long thereafter his son Mike took over the family business, though he’d long been involved since the 80’s. Not long thereafter the Berenstain Bears books, the new ones, started coming out with a company by the name of Zonderkidz. Zonderkidz is maybe the best-known Christian publisher of children’s literature out there (it’s an imprint of Zondervan) and little wonder. Not only do they publish the new Berenstains but have gotten authors like Nikki Grimes to pen several titles for them . Zonderkidz is fascinating to me, particularly when taking note of how they’ve managed to tap into the trends in the larger secular children’s market. So it is that you’ll find The Bible Doodle Book and the very pink Precious Princess Bible (this is true). They even have iPad apps for their books! Searching their products you can also specify if you’re looking for Low, Medium, or High Christianity Content Levels.
Now here’s where it gets interesting.
Pop on over to the official Berenstain Bears website and you’ll find no mention of any of the Zonderkidz books. In fact, the only publishers mentioned on the site are Random House and Harper Collins. In fact, no matter how hard I searched I couldn’t find any mention of the Christian Berenstain books. Not in Mike’s bio. Not in the store. Nowhere! It would appear that, like the Archie comics, the Berenstain site seeks to separate the secular from the overtly religious. Eventually, though, I noticed the What’s New? link. Following that, I finally found what I was looking at. There is a second Berenstain Bears website that shows the Zonderkidz titles. Yet the more religious are still missing. To find those, you have to go to the Zonderkidz website. That’s where you can find Let the Bible Be Your Guide, The Berenstain Bears Follow God’s Words, The Berenstain Bears Show God’s Love, etc.
Yet it’s the perpetual silence over the Bears and their religious inclinations that intrigues me. Nowhere can I find any explanation for why the books have suddenly gone Christian. My assumption is that it’s because Mike Berenstain is now calling the shots, but you would think that fact would be mentioned in an article somewhere. Not so much. Even Wikipedia is mute on the subject.
So there you have it. Three different series read by kids. Three different times those series became religious. It’s an interesting phenomenon when this happens, though I’d be interested if anyone could come up with similar cases with other characters and series (preferably books, comics or cartoons). If you know if any others, let me have ’em. I suspect that characters in the public domain would be ripe for this kind of conversion, but so far I cannot think of any examples.
Thanks to Matt for the idea.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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