I had the good fortune recently to spend three hours watching a Texas literary hero sign books for his many admirers. It was the most inspirational book signing I’ve ever witnessed.
John Erickson is the author of the Hank the Cowdog series of children’s books that were never intended to be children’s books. He wrote them for ranch families, but they were discovered by elementary school teachers and librarians – and parents -- who found them to be books that especially boys, many of them non-readers, would devour and come back for more.
The stories are told in the voice of Hank, the self-proclaimed head of security at a ranch in the Texas Panhandle, which basically means he barks at everything. Bumbling Hank has a good heart but always seems to find himself in some kind of trouble, usually of his own making. Yet he manages to get through it to bark for another day – even emerging as a hero despite himself. Hank stories are humorous, engaging, uplifting.
During the book signing, whole families – two and three generations -- would come up to the table and ask Erickson to pose for pictures after signing their books. This wasn’t just any author, they would testify.
I don’t know how many times I heard the phrase, “Hank the Cowdog changed my life.” Or even, “Hank the Cowdog saved my life.”
They would go on to say how they were not interested in reading as a child, but then they read a Hank novel and were hooked. They became avid readers and better students, went on to college or work, had families, introduced their children to Hank, and their children discovered the joy of reading.
One man said he took Hank tales with him to Iraq during a tour of duty there and spread the word to his fellow soldiers. A woman had a book signed for her 21-year-old son, a former non-reader now a college senior majoring in engineering.
Erickson has heard the testimonials many, many times as he has spoken and signed books at hundreds of schools, libraries, bookstores, and other venues over the years. I’m sure he never tires of hearing them.
The series, which began in the early 1980s with “The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog” and “The Further Adventures of Hank the Cowdog,” has expanded to 76 titles, with the 77th coming out later this year or early next year and a 78th due next spring. When that 78th book hits the shelves, it will be something of a signature moment for Erickson, who turned 78 in October.
Some men his age make it their goal to shoot their age in golf – make a six-over-par78 at age 78, or an eight-over-par 80 at age 80. But only John Erickson will be able to say he has written his age in Hank novels! (Hank also narrates a series of non-fiction titles about ranch life, published in cooperation with the National Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech.)
Erickson has written a number of other very good books as well, such as his latest -- “Bad Smoke Good Smoke” -- about the 2017 Panhandle wildfire that destroyed his ranch home, office, and treasured personal and family possessions.
But I venture to say that those literary accomplishments pale in comparison to the influence of his Hank the Cowdog stories.
At a restaurant after the book signing, the manager spotted Erickson and exclaimed, “My favorite author -- Hank the Cowdog!”
What a legacy for a genuine Texas literary hero.
Glenn Dromgoole and his wife, Carol, operate a book and gift store in Abilene – Texas Star Trading Company.