Neal St. Anthony
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Paul Dixon and Lehman Riley are trying to land a big publishing deal for their “Papa Lemon” series of children’s books, which bring a multicultural perspective to issues such as mental health and bullying.

The two have invested a lot more time and money than they have made from their Papa Lemon Books; eight engaging, colorful works.

“From a spiritual perspective, we are extremely successful,” Dixon said. “Lehman had the vision. And we stuck with it even though we haven’t gotten a major publishing contract, or TV contract. We stayed the course. This year has been challenging. We’re not visiting schools thanks to COVID-19.”

Thousands of students and parents have read one or more of the books. And Riley, the writer and a theatrical presenter, has brought the books to life in engaging presentations and discussions. The duo said Riley has presented to more than 20,000 students.

Dixon, 56, a Minneapolis native and graduate of the University of Minnesota business school, returned last year from a stint in Los Angeles. He was a toy buyer for Target who later worked in toy licensing for Disney Co.

He spent 2018 seeking a deal that would give Papa Lemon a national platform.

Dixon and Riley found a hearty welcome at the University of Southern California, where student-athletes joined them in marketing the books. Many other schools and bookstores bought books and hosted engagements. Some professionals, from education to mental health, have hailed the series.

But they are still waiting for that big break.

“We still have not given up on Papa Lemon,” Dixon said. “Primarily because it is a divinely inspired project and there is still a need for more Black lead characters in series books for kids.”

Dixon is back in the toy trade as a regional sales representative for a plush-toy manufacturer.

Riley, father of four, also had to cope this year with the unexpected death of his 23-year-old daughter.

The former insurance company employee, who focused on writing after being laid off years ago, takes joy from interacting over the books, with kids and adults in schools, park programs and elsewhere.

“The magic happens when Lehman sits in front of children,” Dixon said. “They see an African American writer who’s telling them about a book based on his late grandfather. That captures many of those students. He’s created something that transcends race but has an African American perspective.”

The cousins were inspired by the late Walter “Lemon” Cain. He was a farmer and railroad worker in Mississippi who visited during the summer. “Papa Lemon” championed civility. He was a wise elder. He also was a thrifty and charitable fellow. He died in 1973 at 77.

The books center on a group of kids known as the Little Wanderers.

In the first book, they search for a historic figure to profile for a school assignment. They encounter neighborhood elder Papa Lemon. He shows them a magical locomotive out back.

They set a time dial to 1963, and head to Washington, D.C. They meet the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the day of his nation-changing “I Have a Dream” speech.

“Our goal always has been to get kids excited about reading, to get to know who they are, where they come from and listen to the stories of others,” Dixon said when we first met in 2017. “We all struggle. It is awareness and understanding that bring us together.”

The King-related book sold nearly 10,000 copies. Another is about President Abraham Lincoln. It shows how even great historical figures struggle with mental health and other problems.

Riley also worked at a North Side hardware store to supplement the family income.

“It’s been tough at times,” Riley told me in that 2017 interview. “It’s not been like when I had the corporate job with benefits. My wife encouraged me.’’

Dixon, a star high school football player and top student in his 1981 class at Minneapolis South, turned down an athletic scholarship to accept an academic scholarship at the University of Minnesota.

Dixon and his sister were raised by a mom who worked in a nursing home until 75. The family had no car.

Dixon excelled in school, worked hard, had modest business success and saved his son’s tuition by the time the 34-year-old started college. That enabled Dixon to invest time in Papa Lemon books.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” Dixon now says of the book business. “We still hope to connect with a children’s literacy organization and youth organizations, in partnership, to get some sales and get books out to children.”

Dixon and Riley have achieved success with stories that enrich readers.