The Lima Bear Stories
Thomas Weck (Ethiopia 1965–67) and Peter Weck
Illustrated by Len DiSalvo
How Back-Back Got His Name
The Cave Monster
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
THOMAS AND PETER WECK, along with illustrator Len DiSalvo, have created a series of children’s books for 4–8 year olds called The Lima Bear Stories, three of which, The Megasaurus, How Back-Back Got His Name, and The Cave Monster, I have had the pleasure of reading to my two and three-year-olds over the past week. The stories, about a kingdom of lima bean-sized bears and a number of regular-sized animal friends of the bears, are based on stories Thomas told his children.
The books are handsome and beautifully illustrated, and knowing what my children would do to the books (rip them apart) if I left them within their reach, I planned to keep them on a high shelf for a few day. But when my daughter saw them as I opened the box and spotted the cute bears on the covers, she began an incessant chorus of, “Dad, I want dat book.” Dad, having other work to do put the books on the shelf, and said what Dad says 99.9% of the time to his wild-as-two-dire-wolves-tearing-apart-the-house-all-day children — “No, no, no.”
Daughter, incessantly for four days while tirelessly pointing at shelf : “Dad, I want dat book.”
Dad, mind-numb since he stays home with the kids and is usually trying to type something at the same time: “No, no, no.”
Daughter, like a tiny, pigtailed robot programmed to say exactly one thing: “Dad, I want dat book.”
Dad, like pleading: “Tomorrow. Go watch Dora or something would you?”
In any case, Dad soon found himself propped up against a pillow on the floor with two heavy heads resting on either of his shoulders and breathing hotly on him as he entered the world of The Lima Bear Stories.
Before I get to writing about The Lima Bear Stories, I’d like to make a few comments about being an author for adults who suddenly finds himself pretty much only reading children’s books: I had no idea how intensely competitive the world of children’s books is. I think that every author, no matter what genre he works in, believes he has it the roughest, that the battle for reviews, sales, recognition, and prizes is most savage in his field. But I now know that children’s book publishing is by far the winner of the cutthroat award. At our library, all the moms (yes, it’s all moms in this world I live in now, plus me) are always talking about which book won the Newberry, which one won the Caldecott. We get one free kid’s book a month in the mail from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library literacy program, and as I guesstimate how many bazillion copies sold that must mean for children’s book authors, I imagine they pine after being anointed by Parton the way the rest of us hallucinate about Oprah calling.
Into this world of discerning, capricious, and avaricious moms and the occasional stay-at-home dad, i. e. me, come the Wecks’ The Lima Bear Stories. Having read, I-kid-you-not, at least 500 children’s books over the past couple of years, I now know what to look for. A children’s book should certainly be geared towards the alleged audience — which is children — but the fact of the matter remains that the actual person who has to deal with these books and the stories and pictures contained within is really the parent who must spend half his life reading said books to his children. The parent therefore wants the story to be engaging, the illustrations attractive and distracting, and more than anything, the parent sincerely desires that the book will stand up the 40,000 or so readings back-to-back-to-back that the children will demand if they like it without making his brain leak out his ear, as a surprising number of the books do. Seuss, let me tell you, was so successful because his books keep your brain in your head; there is always something new for the parent to see in those psychedelic images, even at reading 70,000 of Hop on Pop! Eric Carle, author and illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? sold over 100 million books because his illustrations are so beautiful, despite the fact that his writing is as repetitive as Gregorian chanting.
In any case, The Lima Bear Stories, I am happy to report, are winning books, as engaging for children as they are for the parent. It’s a different and interesting world that the Wecks create, along the lines of the Smurfs, Care Bears, or Disney’s wildly successful Tinkerbell fairies. Ruled by a bumbling, if kind, King Limalot, Beandom is populated by the aforementioned very cute tiny bears, among whom a hero arises, a servant’s son named L. Joe Bean. Just like the age group of children these lively books are intended for, diminutive L. Joe Bean is always underestimated in a world that towers over him. He’s also the one who ultimately saves Beandom from all sorts of trouble, including finding a creative way to foil the bean bear-eating Megasaurus. When a bevy of King Limalot’s owl advisors fail to stop the monster in a tale that echoes The Three Little Pigs, plucky L. Joe Bean saves the day not through brawn, but wits.
These stories, it must be admitted, are darkish and have moments that are wonderfully frightening. Len DiSalvo’s illustrations are rich, his landscapes full of detail, his monsters scary. I’m not a parent who shies away from scaring the kids, in fact I prefer it to mindless Brown Bear, Brown Bear sing-song dullness. The children’s attention span at these ages is not great, and it takes a truly engaging story to keep them as riveted into place as the Wecks’ tales do. I asked my daughter, “Are you okay?” at the appearance of the Megasaurus, and later, of the Cave Monster, and for a child who has to leave the room whenever one of Disney’s villains in friendly-disguise finally reveals herself for the witch that she really is, Gwendolyn wanted to know what was going to happen to the tiny bears, who she cared about. I felt her being tested to explore her boundaries as we read, which is what I want.
I especially enjoyed the tale How Back-Back Got His Name, which focuses less on the bears, and more on their animal friends: Maskamal the raccoon, Whistle-Toe the rabbit, and Plumpton (later dubbed Back-Back) the possum. Lots of times when reading children’s books, you realize after a few pages that the story is derivative, a hurried copy pumped out by the publishers to ride the success of some Caldecott winner (there’s a book about a ‘little loon, little loon’ in particular that I’m taking to the skeet shooting range with me the next time I go). But the world of tiny bears the Wecks’ have created here is original and new, wholly realized, populated by characters who are caring and funny, and who parent and child alike enjoy spending time with. I like Maskamal the raccoon especially. He’s earnest in his desire to help his friends, though he’s hapless. The illustration of him standing in a field covered in mud and pretending to be a tree when everyone can see that he’s obviously not a tree, made me laugh aloud.
Thomas Weck is an award-winning author of children’s books. Along with his son, Peter Weck, and illustrator Len DiSalvo, Weck has created a series of children’s books, The Lima Bear Stories, about a kingdom of bears the size of beans who metaphorically confront and overcome many of the issues that small children do. The stories are based on the ones Weck told his own children. Lima Bear Press, Weck’s imprint, publishes “children’s stories that are engaging, imaginative, and humorous while each carries an important life message such as tolerance, honesty, and courage.”
Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s third novel, Mule, released in September to praise from Vanity Fair, Gawker, and the San Francisco Chronicle, has been optioned for film. He has a recession feature in the current issue of Mother Jones, and has been covering Occupy St. Louis for the Riverfront Times. His website is: TonyDSouza.com .