John Erickson - Creator of Hank the Cowdog | Compelled Podcast

#24 Creator of Hank the Cowdog – John Erickson

John Erickson is the author of the popular children’s book series, “Hank the Cowdog,” which has sold over 10 million copies. John has a lighthearted approach in the way he writes, and much of it has to do with the Christian Worldview he carries. Listen to the back story of how Hank the Cowdog came to life and of John’s personal journey.

Win an autographed copy of one of John’s books by entering the giveaway contest further down this page.


Episode Summary

The following is a summary of the podcast interview above with John Erickson. Many more details are included in the original podcast episode and we encourage you to listen.

John’s Rural Upbringing

John Erickson was raised on a ranch in the small town of Perryton, Texas by God-fearing parents. The KJV was imprinted on his heart early on as a child, and his childhood heroes were Joseph, Moses, David, and other champions of the faith.

A Christian worldview was an integral part of John Erickson’s life growing up and also played a role in his journey to one day becoming a best-selling children’s author.

The power of oral tradition was highly valued by John’s family, and he was taught to speak with impeccable English. But no one that John knew was a writer. 

The Joy of Writing

Much like the people he grew up around, John enjoyed listening to and telling stories, but he didn’t have much interest in writing until his senior year in high school when he was assigned to write a poem for his English class.

John made a surprising discovery: writing came to him easily and he enjoyed it! But he never imagined that writing would become his career.

Looking for a Calling 

John considered several vocations including being an attorney, an educator, or throwing himself into politics. Eventually, he chose to pursue ministry.

John graduated from the University of Texas, and enrolled in Harvard Divinity School.

In John’s mind, success for a small-town kid was to move away and never come back, so he was excited to finally be at Harvard. He was sure he would end up in New York or Boston. But God had other plans for John, back in Perryton.

Pursuing Writing

John was now married to his wife Kristine and only had three hours left to graduate with his Master’s degree in Divinity, but it had now become painfully obvious that ministry was not the right calling for him.

So the young couple moved back to Texas, and for the first time, John began seriously thinking about pursuing writing as a full-time profession.

More specifically, John wanted to become a novelist who tackled serious topics. He wanted to be the next Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, or Ernest Hemingway.

Working at a Bar

But while John was studying the craft of storytelling, he still needed to pay the bills and was in need of a job. One of his classmates back at Harvard had told him that, in order to best study human nature, writers should spend time at a bar.

So John decided to take a job as a bartender to foster his writing career. It turned out to be one of the most miserable times of John’s life, and he found that human nature was at its worst in a bar. 

John trashed nearly everything he wrote during this season of his life.

Slowly, John began to realize that the best place to study human nature was watching people at work, doing what they were passionate about – not at a bar. Strangely enough, things in John’s writing career were about to turn a corner as a result of his next job.

Cowboying

After 3 years as a bartender, John had had enough. In 1974, he switched professions and became a cowboy, managing a 5,000 acre cattle ranch in the Oklahoma panhandle for the next 7 years. Looking back, John can now see how God was using that experience to heavily influence his writing style.

Every morning, John would wake up several hours before his cowboy job started in order to spend time writing and honing his craft.

He studied other authors, dissected their stories, attended writing conferences, and submitted hundreds and hundreds of story pitches to publishers. These in turn resulted in hundreds of rejection letters. One editor’s rejection letter especially stood, saying that his novel submission had “too much integrity and not enough sex”. 

Apparently, John’s Christian worldview wasn’t welcome with mainstream publishers.

John’s unwillingness to compromise his faith seemed to be leading his writing career to a dead end. But at the moment he was least expecting, God was about to bring the most unlikely literary character out of John’s pen.

Hank’s Start

One day, John had the idea to feature 2 different stock dogs he had worked with. “Hank the Cowdog” was the star of the story, a mischievous dog who thought of himself as “ranch security” and was always getting into trouble. 

John sent the stories off to a trade magazine for cowboys, and despite the fact that cattlemen don’t typically read fiction, John’s short stories were a big hit. So he continued to write about Hank. 

Self-Publishing

Eventually, Hank became so popular that John finally decided to write a full-length story about Hank and publish it in a book. Because of his previous experience being rejected by publishers countless times, John decided to self-publish Hank out of his own garage.

John did not sell his books in bookstores, but rather in Western stores, county fairs, and rodeos.

Hank was a Hit

“People loved that this dog named Hank was funny. Not only that, but they could also identify with many of Hank’s character flaws, the predicaments those flaws led him into, and the lessons that he learned along the way.

John loved helping other people laugh. For him, laughter was an expression of our wonder about the created world. The same God who created the universe also created laughter. Humor was an integral part of God’s creation that should be celebrated and not taken for granted.

But although John enjoyed writing the Hank stories, he still thought of himself as a serious author, and definitely not a children’s author. Once again, God had other plans.

Becoming a Children’s Author

One day a school librarian contacted John and asked him to come do a program for her students. John’s wife had often told him that the Hank books would make wonderful children’s books, John balked at the idea of becoming a children’s author and was instead set on being a serious novelist.

Besides, his stories had a lot of wordplay and subtle humor in them. Surely children wouldn’t like them. Or would they? 

John decided to do one program and give it a try. It wasn’t long before he couldn’t keep up with the requests pouring in from schools and libraries for him to do programs for their own students. Hank was a smashing success among children as well as the who parents enjoyed reading the books alongside their kids. 

An Unwelcome Worldview

Almost 40 years have passed, and John has written over 70 different Hank the Cowdog books and sold over 10 million copies. Of course, those kind of numbers naturally attracted attention from the mainstream entertainment world, including Nickelodeon and Disney who both made attempts to acquire the film rights.

Shortly after Hank began gaining popularity, John was approached by CBS about adapting the first Hank book into a stand-alone episode for a TV series called Storybreak.

After John agreed, he was shocked at the changes CBS made in the final version that was aired on television and realized that once again, his Christian worldview wasn’t welcome. CBS replaced the father, mother, and son in his book with a female ranchboss and 2 men, the 3 of them all living in the same home. 

Each episode in the Storybreak TV series was adapted from a different children’s book, and as John watched all 13 episodes, he realized that only 1 of them depicted a traditional family with one husband and one wife. This was definitely not a coincidence.

John refused to grant any further film rights to CBS.

John Erickson Today

Today, John is still thinking about making a Hank movie, but for now is still going strong writing Hank stories. While none of them are explicitly Christian, they all carry a Christian worldview, which in today’s world of children’s literature is increasingly rare.

John is grateful that God’s plan for his career was so much greater than anything he could have ever imagined.

Our Calling is Our Ministry

In some ways, John’s approach to vocation is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul. We always think of Paul as a great evangelist who was busy carrying the Gospel of Jesus throughout the world and writing the Bible.

We often forget that Paul also had another occupation. He was a tentmaker who brought glory to God through his craft. 

Likewise, Jesus was the very Son of God, but He was also a carpenter who made things with His hands.

For John, being a children’s author was the farthest thing from his mind as a young man. But God carefully orchestrated John’s life and career, eventually touching millions of children and exposing them to a much-needed Christian worldview.

Whether we are missionaries in the jungles, accountants in the workforce, or stay-at-home moms raising children, God can be equally glorified in all of those vocations.

In the words of the tentmaking Apostle Paul, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:13) 


Book Giveaway

Win an autographed copy of one of John’s books using the entry form below.

Note: Winner must live within the United States or Canada.

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Note: Winner must live within the United States or Canada.


Show Notes

Hank the Cowdog website: http://www.hankthecowdog.com/

John’s book Story Craft.

Video interview with John Erickson from 1988
Image courtesy: Western Horseman Magazine
Image courtesy: Western Horseman Magazine

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