By Nicki Richesin, The Children’s Book Review
Published: April 15, 2013
I had the great pleasure of working with Robert Wilder on two of my anthologies, What I Would Tell Her and Crush. Rob is a funny, wonderfully talented author of Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge and Daddy Needs a Drink, both optioned for television and film. He has published essays in Newsweek, Details, Salon, Parenting, Creative Nonfiction, Working Mother and elsewhere. Rob has been a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition, The Madeleine Brand show, and On Point. He lives in Santa Fe with his cool family. We’re very grateful to him for sharing his all-time favorite family pick with us.
Some parents walk by their child’s room, listening for heavy breathing or a light snore. One of the most comforting sounds I know, however, was the southern drawl of Hank the Cowdog coming out of my child’s room at night. Years ago, we inherited dozens of story cassettes from my friends Boz and Toni’s son Noah who passed them on to my daughter Poppy who then gave them to her younger brother London. Those books on tape have been played so often that any of those kid/teen/young adults can quote most of them word for word. I know a few lines myself, and we promised Noah he’d get them back even though he is currently a junior at Macalester College in St. Paul and cassette players are harder to find than an honest cat, as Hank would say.
Hank the Cowdog is a series of over 60 children’s books started in 1982 by John R. Erickson, and we’ve read a few of the paper versions over the years, but it’s the tapes that we love. Erickson does all the voices which is a feat in itself. He’s no Jim Dale but delivers the lines like he’s lived them somehow. The stories are narrated by the proud but bumbling Hank, the self-styled “Head of Ranch Security” at the M-Cross ranch in the northern Texas Panhandle. Like any good lawman, Hank has a timid and lazy sidekick named Drover, a sworn enemy Pete the Barncat, and even an unrequited love interest, Beulah the Collie. Each tape is like a narrative variety show: there’s a mystery (at least to Hank), a lot of jokes (most on Hank), and a song or two. I think we all love these stories because Erickson has created an intelligent satire of mysteries and Westerns, as well as humans and their misunderstanding of animals. The canon offers an array of lively characters and entertaining plotlines. I hate to say that the Hank the Cowdog series “has something for everyone” because that’s usually the kiss of death for any book, but I’ve watched how these narratives have helped my kids fall asleep at night and also had them laughing out loud in the daylight hours.
One of the reasons that Erickson has sold close to eight million copies is because he doesn’t talk down to his audience. All the kids I know who love the series have parents who also love the series. At least in my home, I can’t say the same for The Berenstain Bears. Erickson’s stories are corny, offbeat, and sometimes even mildly off-color, but they’re always worth reading or, in our case, listening to.
Nicki Richesin is the author and editor of four anthologies; Crush, What I Would Tell Her, Because I Love Her, and The May Queen. She is the San Francisco correspondent for Du Jour and a frequent contributor to Sunset, The Horn Book, 7×7, The Huffington Post, and Daily Candy. Find her online at https://nickirichesin.com/.