Deep in the heart of Texas, where cows still roam,
ranchers still bale hay, and cowdogs still get into mischief,
John R. Erickson is busy writing. He is not writing about
faraway places or conjuring up sorcery like several
popular authors today, but rather he is writing about
real places, real people, and occasionally real events.
Erickson, who grew up listening to old cowboys tell wild
and witty tales about ranch life, has learned the art of
spinning a yarn in just the right way. What he has
found, in writing, is that simple is often best,
truth trumps fairy tales, and laughter is
always preferred to tears.
Written By: Rebecca Canfield | Photos Courtesy Of: John R. Erickson
The love of simplicity is a pattern that has played out in Erickson's
books, and it is a trait that possibly began in his elementary school
years. Because he grew up loving the works of Mark Twain, Tom
Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were his first ventures into the world of
enjoyable reading. A struggling reader in his younger years, Erickson
did not really care for reading until he found Twain. Then, for the first
time, Erickson began to read not because he was being forced to by a
teacher, but merely for pleasure. Erickson says what drew him to Twain
was his appreciation for Twain’s use of regional dialects, his habit of
playing with words, and most of all, the fact that Twain allowed the
reader to laugh. It was the missing ingredient necessary for Erickson's
love of literature to blossom. It was also, though unbeknownst to the
future author, the start of something big.
Even today Erickson swears that keeping his writing simple, funny,
and entertaining is what has kept readers continually coming back
to read more about his loveable mutt, Hank the Cowdog. In an age
where violence has blanketed American television with zombies and
werewolves, and popular characters must be either smart, funny, or
heroic, Erickson’s famous cowdog is unlike other characters. In spite of
the fact that there is nothing very spectacular about Hank, the smelly
and troublesome protagonist, he has still managed to find his way into
the heart of America by being relatable, innocent, and truly hilarious.
“I take very seriously the trust that parents
and teachers put in me. They are giving me
custody of the spirits of small children and I
take that very seriously. I've been a father to
three children and I'm a grandfather to four,
and so giving children something that nourishes
their spirit is a part of my job.”
In fact, Hank has taken Erickson from a pile of rejection letters in the
early 1980s to the award winning author he is today. To date, Erickson has
authored seventy-five books, written over six hundred articles, and boasts
a colossal eight and a half million books sold. In addition to this, Hank the
Cowdog is currently being translated into several languages including
Spanish, Chinese, Danish, and Farsi. What started out in Erickson’s
garage, has blossomed into sixty-six Hank the Cowdog books and today
is nothing short of world-wide phenomenon.
BYGONES & YESTERDAYS
John R. Erickson was born on October 20, 1943
to Joseph W. and Anna Beth (Curry) Erickson. A fifth
generation Texan, Erickson’s family history has found
its way into the Texas history books. Although his
paternal grandfather Charles Erickson emigrated
from Sweden, his mother’s side of the family has
been rooted in Texas back to the state’s very
In fact, Erickson’s great-great grandmother,
Martha Sherman, was murdered by the Comanche
Indians in 1860. Sherman’s murder actually sparked
Sam Houston, who was then Governor of Texas, to
pursue the Comanche due to public outcry over the
barbaric nature of the attack. Even more noteworthy
is the fact that the pursuit was led by famous Texas
rancher and cowboy Charles Goodnight who was
the group’s tracker. Additionally, when the skirmish
was over, an Anglo woman with green eyes named
Cynthia Ann Parker was found living among the
Cherokee. She had been captured at age nine, and
was then returned home, though she was never able
to readapt well to her former life. Her son, Quannah
Parker, was the last Cherokee Indian Chief in Texas.
Ironically he and Charles Goodnight would become
fast friends in later years.
Additionally, a different set of Erickson's great-
grandparents were Quakers who worked as
ranchers and established the town of Esticado,
Texas in 1879 as the first white settlers on the Staked
Plains near what is now Lubbock.
SCHOOL DAYS FOR THE FUTURE WRITER
Although Erickson himself was born in Midland, the family moved
to Perryton when Erickson was three. He graduated from Perryton
public schools in 1962, where he ran track, played football, sang in
the choir, and learned to play the bassoon, drums, and the banjo.
Erickson did not discover his knack for writing until his senior year of
high school when he had to write a poem for English class. Erickson's
English teacher, Annie Love, liked his writing and encouraged him to
write more. By the end of his senior year, Erickson's affinity for poetry
developed into a love of writing.
However, Erickson still says that his best writing teacher was his
mother, who was herself a gifted storyteller. In his book Story Craft,
Erickson reiterates something his mother said to him when he was only
five that had a profound impact on his life.
“God has given you a talent. You must guard it and use it wisely,”
he recalled his mother saying. Years later, he would write, “Maybe
that's something every mother says to every child, but I believed her.”
CIVIL RIGHTS IN THE 1960S
Following high school, Erickson attended the University of Denver
for a year. In college, he discovered that life in Perryton was very
different than life in Denver. For instance, prior to college, Erickson
had never met an African-American before. However, life in a religious
Southern Baptist home had taught him to treat everyone with love and
respect, so this new development resulted in Erickson swiftly joining the
Civil Rights Movement.
In March of 1963, Erickson and a mixed race group of civil rights
activists took a trip to Mississippi, a dangerous thing to do in the 1960s.
On the trip, they visited the White Citizens' Council, met Governor Ross
Barnett, and spent an afternoon with the director of the Jackson office
of the NAACP, who just happened to be Medgar Evers .
“He was a very impressive man,” said Erickson. “We saw bullet
holes in the plate glass in the front of that building, and they were put
there recently, so he was a man who lived in a dangerous time in a
The following June, Erickson was working a summer job at a
Methodist Church in East Harlem, New York, and as he was riding
the subway to work one morning he read in the New York Times that
Medgar Evers had been assassinated in his own front yard.
“It was a big loss. He was the kind of man this country needed to
work our way out of that great sin.”
ERICKSON RETURNS TO TEXAS
Although Erickson greatly loved his time in New York, and even
thought of living there, he eventually chose to return to his studies. He
transferred to the University of Texas at Austin (UT) where he finished
his bachelor's degree. At UT, Erickson studied literature and wrote and
produced screenplays as well as a weekly editorial column for The
Daily Texan. His senior year, though, was the most notable because
Erickson met a beautiful young girl from Dallas named Kristine Dykema
whom he later married. Although this was a great time for Erickson,
his elation was somewhat dimmed in August of 1966, when Charles
Whitman went on a shooting rampage on the UT campus and killed
more than a dozen people. Both Erickson and his then girlfriend Kristine
were present for the horrible event.
Doing their best to put that horrific day behind them, Erickson
married Kristine and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he
began studying at Harvard Divinity School (HDS). Erickson considered
becoming a minister, but later decided against it and pursued
writing instead. He left HDS just three credit hours short of receiving his
master's degree in May of 1968.
Upon returning to Texas, Erickson began working at an inter-racial
church ministry in Austin, but returned to Perryton in 1970. He began
working a series of odd jobs, before moving to Oklahoma in 1974 where
he worked as a ranch cowboy. No matter how often Erickson worked
or how hard, he always began each day with four hours of writing at
his computer. He wrote novels, shorts stories, articles, plays, and even
book reviews. Erickson did manage to publish a few books including
Through Time in the Valley, Panhandle Cowboy, and Modern Cowboy,
but it was not enough to make a living. In 1982, all but exhausted
24 | March 2016
from rejection letters, Erickson was about to give up on writing when
he heard that Ace Reid, a cowboy humorist, self-published his own
calendars and own books.
“In 1982, I got tired of collecting rejection
slips and decided that I had to do something
different or quit. The fact that Ace had done it
gave me a little courage that I could do it too.”
THE BEGINNING OF SOMETHING BIG
When Erickson finally decided to self-publish, he began by
borrowing $2,000 from the bank, after which he and his wife started
their own publishing company in their garage. The first book published
was The Devil in Texas and Other Cowboy Tales. It was a collection of
fourteen funny stories about life as a cowboy.
“The Devil in Texas was important for me because I wrote those
stories in about two weeks. I was not giving much thought to what I
was doing, I was just writing as fast as I could and writing things that
were funny, and it turned out to be a turning point in my writing,” said
After the first print was finished, Erickson's next step was marketing.
He publicized his work by going to civic clubs, garden clubs, and
virtually any organization that needed a free program, and he
would read his stories aloud. The reactions to Erickson's books were
phenomenal. The original printing sold out in just six weeks. Still, of
all the stories that were in the book, Confessions of a Cowdog stood
out the most among readers. When Erickson would
read that particular story, audiences would just howl
with laughter until they cried and then tell Erickson
over and over that he needed to write more about
Listening to his readers, The Original Adventures of
Hank the Cowdog book was written and published in
1983. It was a resounding success. The first printing sold
out in just a few weeks, but amazingly not to children.
Erickson's original audience was adults, and in that
market, the books did amazingly well. Spurred on by
the success, the book was followed by The Further
Adventures of Hank the Cowdog, and later, book
number three entitled, It's a Dog's Life.
HANK THE COWDOG TODAY
Today the worldwide phenomenon that is Hank
the Cowdog has children and adults from all over the
world begging for more adventures. The books are
also sold in an equally popular audio format. Because
Erickson's stories are all designed in an oral storyteller
format, and are read word for word on the audio CDs,
they are often a hit among teachers and librarians
who use them to help struggling readers learn how to
read their first chapter books. Because kids can follow
along with the audio, they can get a sense of how
words are formed, and then later turn the audio off
when they get more confident with their reading, explained Erickson.
Even more amazing, however, is that Erickson performs the
voices for all one hundred-fifty Hank the Cowdog characters himself.
Originally, Erickson started doing the voices on his own because he
could not afford to hire someone else to do them. Now, over thirty
years later, Erickson is still doing it successfully.
Today, Hank the Cowdog is a family operation, though Erickson
says it has been one from the start. His wife, who has worked behind
the scenes as editor and photographer, and who has followed
Erickson without complaint down many a winding path with no sure
end, deserves much of the credit, says Erickson. His youngest son,
Mark, who was born the same year that Maverick Books began, is
involved with Hank the Cowdog, and has worked alongside Erickson
to develop a Hank the Cowdog screenplay which they are attempting
to turn into a feature length animated movie. Mark Erickson has a law
degree from University of Texas as well.
Today, in addition to writing, John Erickson and his wife Kristine
travel all over the United States appearing in schools from Alaska
to Florida reading his Hank the Cowdog books aloud to delighted
children and performing the accompanying songs, all self written,
as well. Additionally he is also a popular speaker among librarians,
teachers, and homeschoolers.
John and Kristine Erickson still live in Perryton, Texas today. They
are the parents of three children, Scot, Ashley, and Mark, and the
grandparents of four.
For more information about Hank the Cowdog and John Erickson, visit
w w w . h a n k t h e c o w d o g . c o m