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REVIEW: Don’t compromise your values, advises ‘Cowdog’ author

What do you get when you cross a Harvard education, a working cowboy and a sincere commitment to Jesus Christ?
The answer is a viewpoint that is about as uncommon as a Harvard Christian cowboy.
Primarily known for the bestselling children’s series “Hank the Cowdog,” John R. Erickson makes an unpretentious offering in cultural criticism in “Story Craft: Reflections on Faith, Culture & Writing.”
Erickson is surprisingly aware of Christian worldview literature — considering that he spent the past 28 years writing about a smelly, quixotic dog that protects his ranch from silver monster birds.
Erickson’s early works were rejected by New York publishers as “too regional” or “not enough sex.” He refused to give up, launched the “Hank the Cowdog” series and now returns to critique the culture that sent him the pink slips.
The encouraging message Erickson preaches is that you must keep working and not compromise your values.
After the initial rejections, this University of Texas and Harvard man opened his own publishing company and started printing books on his own tab, believing in the quality of his stories. After verging on bankruptcy, the experiment worked. The fledgling Maverick Books grew and quickly came to be courted by movie heavyweights Disney and Nickelodeon.
Million-dollar signing offers challenged Erickson’s ethics. He was even railroaded by a major network into a postmodern Hank the Cowdog pilot, but learned his lesson and teaches us from the bruises.
Some 7 million books later “Story Craft” demands our attention as a critical view from the inside of writing and publishing.
Erickson launches a frontal attack on the literary establishment and popular culture. He takes a stab at network media, vacuous secular education and the jagged world of modern art by declaring “A good deal of popular culture offends me.”
Less a critic, more a cheerleader for parents, artists and consumers, Erickson pushes us toward a better definition of what we consider art. He implores us to look for what will “nourish” the reader, not to simply shock or amuse.
Every piece of cultural material contains a worldview, he writes. It makes us either better or worse. A story should enrich, not poison, the reader.
While little of this overt faith talk has made its way into his previously published work, it bubbles up to the surface in “Story Craft” frequently. Quoting the Bible, C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer more often than his Texas and Harvard professors, he makes his case for a worldview that carefully appraises the stream of media we are offered today.
Erickson argues that even his dog humor is laced with Christian worldview — in contrast to preachy Christian literature and blatantly secular humanistic stories that dominate the mainstream. Pulling no punches, Erickson challenges Christian writers and artists. Their work often lacks authentic, quality storytelling and defaults to dogmatic, oft-repeated storylines and thinly veiled sermons, he writes.
The millions of “Hank the Cowdog” fans will enjoy this book for its insight into the life of the series’ creator — not to mention Hank himself. But “Story Craft” is also a valuable tool for teachers, librarians and aspiring writers along with any parent or home-schooler whose children are watching television, going to movies, listening to popular music and learning to read.
Aspiring writers and college students will also find savvy advice, both technical and ethical, throughout the book. Three chapters offer 20 simple keys for how to write. The most striking and profound; “Before we write, we should live.”
Erickson’s experienced and honest voice drives the book. Unfortunately, he frequently abandons that perspective and relies on other voices, namely C.S. Lewis and Gene Edward Veith.
Many have written similar Christian worldview treatises on writing, culture and art (Veith and well-known author Nancy Pearcey write the introduction and foreword). Erickson points to many of the same conclusions but does so as a man with a lifetime in the actual arena of publishing, art and culture.
The battles he has fought in this theater, while maintaining his Christian integrity, will both instruct and inspire. “Story Craft” will give every reader something worthwhile to consider and aid in helping the reader form a better lens for what they pick up next.
Nathan A. Dahlstrom is a director for The Children’s Home of Lubbock in Texas. He and his wife have three daughters and attend the Greenlawn Church of Christ in Lubbock.

  • Feedback
    Re: Nathan Dahlstrom’s review of John Erickson’s book “Story Craft.” John Erickson, the author, is fairly well-known in modern children’s literature, I think, but is far too profound an adult to be limited to that audience. John Erickson the man, and also my friend, is a gem. This book offers a window into his perspective and values — values of deep faith, kindness and generosity, hard work and sacrifice, and humility — all that makes west Texas such an amazing place with such amazing people. For these reasons and more, the book is well worth the buying and reading and passing around and discussing.
    Terry Danley
    Community Worship Center
    Perryton, TX
    April, 30 2010

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