At 11 am on Tuesday morning, a few representatives from SumOfUs.org and CREDO Action, and a photographer they brought along, milled outside the HarperCollins headquarters looking hesitant.
They were holding a FedEx box bearing the message “Stand up for Equality!” affixed with a computer printout of the Berenstain Bears. Inside the box were 80,000 signatures—collected by the two social action groups in association with Faithful America—calling upon the publisher, which puts out the Berenstain Bears series, to sever ties with Chick-fil-A as long as the fast food company continues to support anti-gay organizations.
“We found out that the Berenstain Bears were the next [toy in the] kids’ meals, and we put it to our email list,” Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, the executive director of SumOfUs told The Transom, explaining that members’ responses were the highest action rate the organization had ever seen on its summer email list.
The petitions came on the heels of the Jim Henson Company’s announcement that it was ending its partnership with Chick-fil-A two weeks ago, shortly after which, signs appeared in the restaurant chain recalling the Muppet kid meal toys “due to a possible safety issue.”
“I think it’s partly that the Berenstain Bears is a cherished memory from childhood,” Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman explained fondly, clearly not harboring any of the hostility to the series voiced by some contemporary critics.
Yet as they waited outside the publisher’s headquarters, the activists remained unsure whether they’d receive any attention from HarperCollins. “I’m not even sure if someone is going to come down,” Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman admitted, adding, “they haven’t responded to any of our calls.”
“Well, that’s not exactly true,” she quickly conceded, explaining that SumOfUs had been encouraging their members to call HarperCollins directly, and estimating that the publisher had received over 200 calls on their behalf since Friday.
Around 11:15, the small, determined group, which included Ms. Stinebrickner-Kaufmann, as well as SumOfUs campaigner Claiborne Deming and Zack Malitz of CREDO Action, marched into the HarperCollins lobby, which was as far as they’d get. The company sent down the Vice President of Administration Tom Hopke, who listened anxiously as Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman explained the petitioners’ stance that Chick-fil-A’s values were at odds with those embodied by the Berenstain Bears.
“It’s not consistent with the principles this country was built on, it’s not consistent with the values we want to teach our children, and it’s just wrong,” she said. She proceeded to present Mr. Hopke with a copy of The Berenstain Bears and the New Neighbors, a book that, she explained, emphasizes standing up to bigotry.
“Well, I’ll take this up to the management,” Mr. Hopke responded, taking the box of petitions and hurrying away.
Outside the offices, the activists appeared mildly disappointed, yet not dispirited. “I wish they had made a statement,” said Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman, “But I think they’re not sure about what to do. This is probably more feedback from customers than they’ve gotten on a book in a long time. I’m sure they’re considering it strongly,” she said.
The actual Berenstain family, which holds the copyrights to the series, have already distanced themselves from the controversy. In a note posted on their official website last week, the family explained that they have no control over the HarperCollins partnership with Chick-fil-A, stating that the Berenstain Bears kids meal program had been in development for a year before the fast-food chain’s anti-gay stance came to light last month.
For its part, HarperCollins issued a statement via email: “We have a long history of diversity and inclusiveness, and work tirelessly to protect the freedom of expression for our authors. It is not our practice to cancel a contract with an author, or any other party, for exercising their first amendment rights.”