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Tanner Kent, The Free Press, Published August 19 2012

Minn. author’s journey began with own struggles to read

MANKATO, Minn. – Paul Zoch gives new meaning to the term “self-published.”

Zoch still couldn’t read by fifth grade. He was relieved to barely graduate high school with a D-minus from a sympathetic American history teacher.

And yet, he is about to self-publish his fourth children’s book.

Having sold the Fairmont dental laboratory he started as a teenager in March, Zoch is now writing the kinds of books that once helped him learn to read – when he was a 23-year-old married man.

“She’d read the whole page three or four times,” he said of his wife, Karen, whom he credits with helping him overcome a case of dyslexia that plagued his reading skills since childhood. “Then she’d take my finger and we’d follow the words, and she would read with me. ... It was frustrating, agonizing. She would tell me, ‘Someday you’ll love to read.’ I never believed her.”

In school, Zoch was faced with the classic grade school dilemma of being labeled “the dummy” or the “clown.” He opted for the latter. While shielding his secret disability with jokes and laughter, Zoch was painfully self-conscious of the fact that he was required to attend special education classes most of the day.

He graduated high school when his American History teacher gave him a D-minus “because he knew I tried,” and began considering his limited career options. Though his father was a machinist and Zoch knew the trade fairly well, he chose something different and settled on the idea of a dental lab technician.

Zoch did spend some time in a lab school (where he discovered he was something of a natural), but he didn’t graduate. Yet, he opened his own lab and had become sole owner by the time he was 20 years old. During his career, he earned patents, added employees and expanded his business several times.

But there was a time, before he was married and while he was struggling to keep his fledgling dental lab afloat, that Zoch’s lack of reading skills almost cost him his livelihood.

“I was transposing numbers, missing dates – I couldn’t run a business,” he said. “I was going broke.”

So, the irony isn’t lost on Zoch that his trio of self-published books has now been picked up by local Barnes & Nobles stores.

“I think if there’s any way that it motivates kids to read,” he said, “then that’s huge.”

The books revolve around a similar premise: Two sibling squirrels who ask themselves “What do we need?” before they leave for a family event. Their answers are unpredictable – a piano for their camping trip; sprinkled doughnuts for their fishing trip – and lead the siblings to plan ahead and think critically about their ideas.

The “What Do You Need” series actually began as a game Zoch played with his own children when they were young. It became a tradition to ask the question before any family trip, and Zoch wrote down some of the lists for keepsake.

On a pheasant hunt years later, a friend convinced him to craft them into a book series. That friend’s son, Minnesota State University Mankato graduate student and high school art instructor Blaise Jacobsen, later joined Zoch as illustrator.

Together, the two illustrated the second and third of Zoch’s books: “What Do You Need to Build a Birdhouse” and “What Do You Need to Go Fishing.” They are releasing another book for Christmas titled “What Do You Need to Trim a Christmas Tree.”

“I’m glad I self-published,” Zoch said. “It gave me control. If I was going to wait, it may not have ever happened.”

Jacobsen dabbles in a variety of artistic mediums and will have a public showing of his work in December at MSU Mankato. His interest in illustration goes back to his childhood, when an uncle, who worked for Hanna Barbera, would send him frames from “The Smurfs.”

For the “What Do You Need” series, Jacobsen provides plush, richly colored illustrations with a few surprises for observant readers. The latest book, for instance, includes a look-and-find game at the end. In a bottle bobbing in the water is a message written to Dustene: “Will you marry me?” (The look-and-find in the next book will contain a hidden note that she said yes.)

“It’s just a cool opportunity,” Jacobsen said. “I’ve always wanted to illustrate a book.”