A picture book published by a small New Hampshire press, based on a story that has aired on Vermont Public Radio for the past 25 years, could be among the biggest success stories in New England this holiday season—with the potential to become a holiday tradition. Bunker Hill Publishing has already sold through its first printing of 3,500 copies of Willem Lange’s Favor Johnson: A Christmas Story, illustrated by Bert Dodson.

Last week Favor Johnson was the bestselling children’s book at Northshire Books in Manchester Center, Vt., beating out titles from much larger houses, including Lauren Thompson’s The Christmas Magic and Chris Van Dusen’s TheCircus Ship. It’s also one of the top 10 children’s Christmas books of the year on About.com. “It did very well for us,” says Michael Herrmann, owner of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., who held a signing with Lange last month. “If Bunker Hill had had stock, we would have been in triple digits in sales, getting into Jan Brett territory.”

Willem Lange.

Lange says he wrote Favor Johnson in 1982 as a newspaper column, “and it was like the Energizer Bunny.” Even so, it wasn’t until 2008, at his wife’s suggestion, that he began reworking it into a children’s book and contacted Dodson, who illustrated his earlier picture book, John and Tom (Vermont Folklife Center). Dodson, who worked with Bunker Hill on Thomas Paine’s Cousin John, introduced Lange to managing director Carole Bellew and her husband, publisher Ib Bellew. “We had lunch in November last year and signed a contract on a napkin as it were,” says Ib, who is a regular reader of Lange’s column in the Valley News. Carole calls Lange’s tale of an old Vermont farmer “a delightful story of loving and giving that epitomizes what the holiday season should be all about.”

Ib credits Bunker Hill’s distributor, National Book Network, with using BEA to launch the book. Then he and Carole began arranging local events and signings and hired a publicist, Kimberly Bouchard of Pigtail Productions, to help with media. They also donated 300 books to VPR to use in fundraising before Lange’s traditional Christmas Eve reading of the tale.

Five-year-old Bunker Hill has been hit hard by the recession, despite an eclectic list for children and adults. It publishes many books in conjunction with museums, like David Romanowski and Melissa Keiser’s spring 2010 release, The Legacy of Flight, with images from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “We got slammed. We had five contracts canceled,” says Carole, noting that institutions either ran out of money or froze their funds. As a result, the press has scaled back, from eight to 10 books a year to four or five in 2009.

Still Favor Johnson has been a bright spot. “This is the first title that we felt the whole joy of publishing the way it should be,” Carole says. “It’s opened doors for Bunker Hill with regional booksellers who didn’t stock our books.” Certainly that’s the case for Gibson’s Herrmann, who says, “This is the first time Bunker Hill has come to our attention, but we’ll be looking for more.”

Favor Johnson: A Christmas Story by Willem Lange, illus. by Bert Dodson. Bunker Hill Publishing, $16.95 Oct. ISBN 978-1-59373-082-6