Texas author John Erickson has always had a close rapport with his fans. As the author of the popular “Hank the Cowdog” series of children’s books, Erickson and his wife, Kris, regularly visit schools across the region to read Hank stories and perform music.
So it follows that Erickson would adapt to the nation’s current stay-at-home status by reaching out digitally with a new series of videos called “Hank the Cowdog: Readings from the Ranch.” The videos show Erickson reading Hank stories in a rocking chair amid real-life cows and cowdogs on his Roberts County ranch.
The first episode features “The Boxer,” a story from The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog, the very first of the 74 books in the series. In five days, the video got over 42,000 views on YouTube alone. No doubt some of those were repeat views—there’s just something reassuring about listening to Hank’s misadventures as actual ranch dogs mill about, and the wind brushes the caprock breaks and canyons of the Erickson ranch, which is located near Perryton.
Erickson took a moment to talk with Texas Highways about the project and his efforts with Maverick Books to spread some levity among the trials of the coronavirus. Along with the videos, he’s donated a serial story, The Dancing Cowboy, to newspapers across the country and arranged for Audible.com to give away free downloads of three Hank audio books.
“The Hank the Cowdog stories provide innocent humor and laughter,” Erickson says. “Laughter doesn’t cure the virus but it helps us cope with fear, stress, and isolation.”
Are the ranch readings regular offering? How often are you posting these videos?
When the coronavirus turned our lives upside-down, we at Maverick Books discussed ways that we could use our assets to help teachers, families, and children deal with the situation.
Since 1983, we have used the Hank stories and characters in a wide range of media: books, audio books, music, live performances, newspaper serial stories, and stage plays. Now we are moving in several directions to provide those assets to people who need them.
[The video readings] are something we had never thought of doing but all at once it seemed right. My son Mark rounded up two cameras and a microphone and served as the director.
He chose several scenic spots on the ranch and I did what I’ve been doing in schools for 35 years: I opened a Hank book and read funny passages, doing the voices of the characters, only this time my audience was a photographer, two ranch dogs, cattle, and buzzards.
This is a new direction for us and we’re inventing things as we go. Mark and I shot four more episodes at the ranch and he is editing the second episode now. We’ll make them available as soon as possible.
What motivated you to make the videos?
Well, our country is going through a very difficult time and every one of us must do what we can to provide strength and comfort for our nation and state, right down to individual towns, churches, schools, and families. There is an innocent, timeless quality in the Hank stories and we need that right now. We need laughter and peace and nourishment for the soul.
We are also a small, family-owned, small-town business and we want to survive this wreck. World headquarters of Hank the Cowdog is in Perryton, which is dealing with depressed prices in cattle, grain, and oil, as well as the economic consequences of the virus.
Maverick Books survived the recessions of 1983 and 2008, and several depressions in the oil patch, and we are one of few Texas publishers who did. We would like to survive this one too. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. We’ll provide gentle entertainment to people in any form that works, and right now that includes YouTube videos.
How are you making the most of your lockdown time on the ranch?
Kris and I live on an isolated ranch in the Panhandle, and that’s a pretty good place to be right now. We’re accustomed to solitude. I continue to work in my writing office every day, as I have done for decades, then I do work on the ranch.
Kris is working to rebuild the house we lost in the wildfires of 2017, which has been a slow process. She is a quilter, and we both are readers. In the evenings, we bring out our instruments and sing together. Lately, we’ve been watching old Laurel and Hardy movies.
I must confess that I often read a Hank book at bedtime. Like everyone else, I grow weary of grim news. We mustn’t forget how to laugh at the nonsense of dogs and human beings. Laughter is one of God’s gifts and this is a good time to use it.