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Dog's best friend

Hank the Cowdog creator John Erickson built a 20-year legacy of stories out of wholesome ranch life and a dog that sins

Dog's best friend

For more than 20 years children have enjoyed reading about the silly exploits of Hank the Cowdog, his sidekick Drover, and the other creatures (human and not) living on a ranch in the Texas panhandle. Their creator, John Erickson, began writing while he was a full-time cowboy in Texas and Oklahoma. In 1982, after getting several rejection slips from New York publishers, he borrowed $2,000 and founded his own publishing company, Maverick Books.

The first Hank book came out in 1983. Since then, without a big marketing budget, Hank has become a multimedia star of books, audiotapes, and stage plays. He now has a New York publisher (Puffin Books), but Hank and his creator haven't moved from the 7,000-acre Erickson ranch in Perryton, Texas.

WORLD: Your 48 Hank the Cowdog books have sold about 7 million copies. Why is Hank so popular?

ERICKSON: The Hank books have been driven by word of mouth, not by advertising. They began to take off around 1985 when school librarians and teachers discovered that children enjoyed reading them and that the books contained no toxic material or hidden messages. We've developed a brand name that parents and educators can trust. We produce books and audiobooks that are good enough for their kids.

WORLD: Your books are great for reading aloud. Tell us a little about your writing and editing process.

ERICKSON: During my years as an apprentice writer, I tried to imitate other writers and their writing styles. After 15 years of failure, I stopped trying to be a man of letters and began merely telling stories, imitating the storytelling techniques of ranch people. The Hank stories were always meant to be read aloud and the audience I had in mind was a three-generation family, sitting around the kitchen table on a cold winter night. That's why I've done all the Hank stories as audiobooks. It's their most natural medium.

WORLD: You once said you could sum up Hank's character "in a paraphrase of St. Paul: 'That which I do, I should not, and that which I should not, I do-all the time.'" Could you explain?

ERICKSON: Hank is a unique character in that he's a dog, not a human dressed up in a dog suit. He captures what is best and worst in a creature that God designed to be man's best friend. Hank wants to be a good dog, but he's involved in a constant struggle with his nature: a short attention span, food lust, and an exalted opinion of his role as Head of Ranch Security. Hank is a sinner. Sometimes he rises to heroism but he doesn't stay there for long. That describes every dog I've known. It also has some very funny parallels with the human condition.

WORLD: You've said that you learned from parents and teachers that your "business is not books. It's nourishment." What do you mean by that?

ERICKSON: People need good stories just as they need home-cooked meals, clean water, spiritual peace, and love. A good story is part of that process. It affirms divine order in the universe and justice in human affairs and makes people better than they were before they read it. If artists are more gifted than ordinary mortals (we keep hearing that they are), they should find order and harmony in human experience. That's what Bach and Handel did. Artists should nourish the spirit, not poison it.

WORLD: In what other ways do your Christian beliefs express themselves in your books?

ERICKSON: Charles Colson has pointed out that the Christian worldview sees human beings as part of the divine act of creation. If my readers are God's creation, not merely statistics or blobs of protoplasm, that shapes everything I do. If I cheat them or corrupt them, "Better for [me] that a millstone were hanged around [my] neck, and that [I] were drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matthew 18:6). That's a serious mandate. I take it seriously.

WORLD: What do you say to parents who aren't convinced that stories are important for children?

ERICKSON: I never encounter parents who question the importance of stories. I make a limited number of school appearances and work with teachers, librarians, and parents who have a powerful commitment to reading and literacy. They call me because they're looking for an alternative to pop culture. They trust my books and sense that there is a spiritual dimension to what I do. We don't always talk about it in the open, but we don't have to.

WORLD: The Hank books include a lot of earthy humor. Hank bathes in the sewer. Wallace the buzzard throws up on the coyotes: "That would be bad enough if he ate decent food. But buzzards don't eat decent food. When one throws up on you, what you're getting is dead skunks, dead rats, rot and corruption." Do you ever get complaints?

ERICKSON: No. I operate a 7,000-acre ranch and spend a lot more time with animals than with people. My descriptions of animal behavior are honest and accurate. Ranch dogs lounge in the overflow of the septic tank and buzzards throw up when they're disturbed. If you compare this kind of behavior with the political news we've been hearing this fall, it seems rather wholesome and innocent, doesn't it?

WORLD: You wrote that you once received three letters in a month from mothers of autistic children. You found out later why the books connected with these kids. Would you explain?

ERICKSON: One of the mothers explained that autistic children fight a constant battle against mental chaos. They crave structure and order. My stories are tightly structured. They all have happy endings and in every story, justice is affirmed. The grotesque irony is that, while the mothers of autistic children fight day and night against mental chaos, popular culture scoops it out by the ton: frantic television images that have no coherence, movies that can't distinguish between heroes and villains, art that seems to have lost all vision of form and beauty.

WORLD: Perryton, in the Texas panhandle, is a ways off the beaten track. Lots of decisions about children's book publishing come out of New York. How does your perspective differ from the conventional?

ERICKSON: Because we self-published the first 10 Hank books out of our garage in Perryton, Kris and I were able to control the content and make them the kind of stories we wanted for our own three children. The stories create a loving portrait of the life, values, and gentle humor of rural America. I've had the unique opportunity of being an author who is part of his community. My work is measured by the same common-sense standards that apply to carpenters and plumbers-an excellent discipline for writers, I think.

WORLD: You've been writing children's books for almost 25 years. You also do a lot of book signings. Have you noticed any changes in your audience?

ERICKSON: My original audience was adults involved in agriculture. Once the books got into the schools, I was doing performances for kids in third through fifth grades, mostly in public schools. Today, I'm spending more time in Christian schools and at conventions of homeschoolers. I think Christian groups were slow to recognize the spiritual dimension of my work. It's pretty subtle, but we must face the possibility that God has a sense of humor. After all, He's the one who built the first dog.

Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan is WORLD’s story coach and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband, Marvin, live in Austin, Texas. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.