JUST NORTH OF THE PROVINCIAL CAPITAL of Dessie in the Debub Wollo Zone of Ethiopia is a small road-side town called Haik (or Hayq), wedged between low range hills and Lake Hayq. It is famous for being the home of the Coptic Church’s Istifanos Monastery, and for being the Peace Corps site where Tom Weck taught 7th and 8th grade English and math from 1965 to 1967. Tom was the only PCV in Haik, though a dozen or more PCVs (including his future wife) were stationed in Dessie, 28 kilometers south on an all-weather gravel road that bisected, north and south, the Empire of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Haik was a town through which everyone — from missionaries, tourists, lorry drivers, and the Ethiopian government officials — raced. There was nothing in Haik, beyond the monastery and a 1930s Italian graveyard for the bodies of dead Blackshirt soldiers of the brief Italian occupation. But I always stopped in Haik when I was the Peace Corps APCD in Ethiopia. I stopped because of Tom Weck.

I’d usually spend the night in Dessie sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor of John Hoover’s chakka home, or go on to Haik to stay with Tom as he had a spare room in his small house. These were the days when I’d drive my Land Rover north and south on the two main roads of Ethiopia visiting PCVs in some 20+ towns over the one-thousand miles of my APCD territory.

I liked visiting Tom as he was an interesting guy, and also, I felt a little sorry for him being off by himself in his one-man town.  The thing about Tom was that everything interested him. He was great with getting down the facts and figures and knowing the details. coleman-lamp1I remember a particular night sitting at his small kitchen table while he lectured (and entertained me) on the particulars of his Coleman Lantern.

Clearly Tom felt a great fondness and affection for his Coleman Lantern. (It was, after all, what he needed to read or write after six p.m. in Ethiopia.) And while he didn’t give a “name” to his lantern, he nevertheless handled the Coleman with great respect, giving it his full care and attention.

Over the years I wondered what happened to Tom, and recently at the 50th Reunion while talking to another RPCV — Steve Crabtree — who had attended Harvard Graduate School with him, I asked, “Where’s Tom?”

The answer surprised me. He was a book publisher. A publisher of children’s books. Having retired from corporate life, he was now living in Delaware.

Steve told me that after graduating from business school in ‘69 Tom went with Louis Berger & Associates, a consulting firm, and ran the business as president for the last 12 years. Now he was publishing books.

Wanting, of course, to publicize his work,  I wrote Tom and was happy to hear back about  his life and his business, and I asked him a bunch of questions.

Here’s what he had to say.

How did you start publishing children’s stories, Tom?

It was my son Peter who prompted me to start Lima Bear Press, LLC. He felt my stories were so good that they had to be shared with others.

These were your stories?

Yes, you see, when my children were very young, I told them bedtime stories. I told a lot of stories as I had four children (David, Peter, Kathryn and Andrew.) And I made up stories. I made up a clan of  beans, the size of lima beans, that lived in the forest with regular sized animals.

When children are born, they come into a world that is not sized for them. It is sized for adults, and this presents many problems and challenges for them. It is the same thing for the bean-clan. I found that my children identified with these beans as they listened to (or read) about the size problems these beans encountered. To make the beans very likeable, for the two main bean characters, I gave them endearing qualities. Lima Bear is the essence of goodness, and his cousin, L. Joe Bean, is the cleverest animal of the forest.  It tickled my children pink that this tiny bean was the cleverest.

When my second son, Peter, was in his 30s, one day he came to me and said: “Dad, you remember those Lima Bear Stories you used to tell us.  Those stories were so good and had such good messages, which I still remember, that you really need to share these stories with others. They can’t just disappear with you.”  He prevailed upon me to launch a publishing company, Lima Bear Press, LLC, with the two of us as partners.

megasaurusWith our joint memories, we were able to reconstruct the stories almost exactly as I first told them (Peter’s memory is phenomenal). We planned a series of 10 Lima Bear Stories. Our national how-back-backdistributor (one of the best known distributors in the country) has released three of our stories: The MegasaurusHow Back-Back Got His Name, and The Cave Monster. Four more stories have been written and fully illustrated. The last three stories have been written and are in the early stcave-monsterages of illustration. Our distributor wants us to release only three stories at most per year — therefore we have three more ready to go in 2012.

To what age group are the Lima Bear Stories targeted?

In the market, it is called the 4-8 year old age group.  We have found, however, that our effective audience ranges from ages 3-10. A three-year old can understand the story and a ten-year old is still laughing at the antics of the characters.

What is the mission of Lima Bear Press?

Summarized in the few words: Our mission is to help children become life-long readers.  By engaging children at an early age with wonderful and very funny stories, beautifully illustrated, containing great messages, we hope to encourage them to make reading an important part of their lives.

So is there an overriding message within each book?

Yes, we consider it essential to incorporate an important life-message in each story.  The message is woven into of the fabric of the story. It is integral to the entire story. For example, in the first book (The Megasaurus), the message is: Stick to your convictions. In the second book (How Back-Back Got His Name), the message is: Have tolerance for the differences in others. In the third book (The Cave Monster), the message is: By cooperating, you can often accomplish things that alone you would never be able to accomplish.  Each of the seven remaining stories has an equally important message. These messages are delivered to children in their very formative years with the goal of instilling these messages into the essence of who they become as adults.

Have you incorporated any special features into your books?

Yes.  We see the stories not only as stories, but also as platforms from which further learning and development can take place.  At the end of each book, we have two sections: 1) Extend the Learning; and 2) Activities.  We consider these to be very important sections.  Each section engages children by firing up their creativity and imagination. In this way the children become active participants in the story, and this presents an environment where a great deal of learning and development takes place.  These two sections are different, in fact unique, in each story.  Therefore in each book, these two sections become as aspect of the book that children look forward to as they read more and more stories in the series.  These two sections are ideal for teachers, librarians, parents, grandparents, and others to bring learning and excitement to young minds.

Can you tell me about the main characters?

There are five main characters (and many other characters who come and go depending upon the story).  The first two characters are the tiny beans referred to above. Then there is Back-Back the Opossum, Maskamal the Raccoon, and Whistle-Toe the Rabbit. Each character has what we call a throughput personality — that is, their essential personality traits hold true in every story. In this way, we believe the children come to know and to like each character and take a kind of “ownership” of each one. Children have no idea how a new story might unfold, but they have a pretty good idea of how each character will act given a particular problem, challenge, or decision. We believe this helps reinforce the main message of the story.

Have you set any special objectives for your illustrations?

The illustrations must be beautifully creative and illustrative gems in their own right. While the text gives the verbal rendition of the story, the illustrations give the visual rendition. There are therefore between 28-30 full color illustrations in each book. We have found that a child of three years old can often “tell” the whole story from just the pictures after having heard the story read only a couple of times.

How did you put your team together?

First we selected our illustrator.  We evaluated submissions from more than 400 illustrators and chose Len DiSalvo as the illustrator.  We chose well.

I attended two annual meetings of Book Expo America (BEA), the major book show for publishers and all support personnel associated with the publication of books. By interviewing and networking, I put together a team of professionals recognized in the industry as top tier in their respective areas of concentration. I brought onto our team a marketer, a publicist, a layout and creative specialist, an editor, and a proof reader. It was at BEA where I found a highly ranked national book distributor that was excited about our mission and our products.  Through our team, we found a printer who met our printing quality requirements.

What kind of industry reviews have you been receiving?

To date, we have received over 75 industry reviews.  All have praised the three books that we have released. Our publicist has commented that she has never seen so many superb reviews come in so quickly.  We have had feature articles on Lima Bear Press in major newspapers. I was interviewed on a PBS program that aired in five states. We have been delighted with the reception of Lima Bear Press in the marketplace.

How do does one find the books?

Well, anyone can write directly to Lima Bear Press at info@limabearpress.com or just call 800-247-6553.. The books are distributed by Atlas Books, and, of course, available at bookstores, libraries, and online booksellers like Amazon.

Thanks, Tom. Thanks for your time and thanks for your books.

You’re very welcome. Come visit.

Okay, turn on the Coleman Lantern!