In 1875, Mark Twain wrote to a friend about the book he had just finished writing: Tom Sawyer. “It is not a boy’s book, at all. It will only be read by adults. It is only written for adults.” Several months later, he wrote the same friend, saying that he had come to agree with his wife Livy, that “the book should issue as a book for boys, pure and simple…It is surely the correct idea.” [Kaplan 1966:180]
When I wrote the first book-length Hank story in 1982, my wife, Kris, served as my editor, and after reading The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog in manuscript, she said, “This would make a great children’s story.” In a flash of anger, I roared, “It’s not a children’s book! I don’t write children’s books.”
Kris’s instincts were correct, of course, as time has proved a thousand times over. Although my original audience consisted mostly of adults involved in agriculture, the circle began to widen soon after we brought out the first book in the spring of 1983. It was a natural phenomenon that happened on its own, without any kind of manipulation or advertising gimmickry.
I can only guess how it occurred. Families read the book aloud on trips or around the dinner table, or parents read the books and passed them on to their children. By the time we had brought out the third book in the series, I was getting calls from teachers and librarians who wondered if I would come to their schools and do a program.
When I replied that the humor was too subtle for children, the teachers informed me that students were bringing them to school and reading them at recess on the school ground.
At some point, I did the sensible thing—stopped arguing with my audience and accepted that I had become an author of children’s books.
In the years since, I have done thousands of author visits in schools and have read my stories aloud to young people of just about every color, stripe, and persuasion: Nordic-German white kids in North Dakota, African-American kids in East Texas and Alabama, Mexican-American kids in the Rio Grande Valley, Asian-American kids in California; Iranians in Houston; Navajos in Arizona, Eskimos in Alaska, and Cherokees in Oklahoma; private-school kids in Dallas, one-room-schoolhouse ranch kids in Nebraska, and homeschooled Mennonite kids in Pennsylvania.
The question they most often ask is, “Where did Hank come from? Who is he?” And, in answer, I have developed a short, standard answer: “There was a historical Hank that lived on a ranch in Oklahoma. He was an Australian shepherd and he belonged to one of my rancher-neighbors. Hank tried to help with the cattle work and usually made a mess of it. He had a good heart but wasn’t very smart. He was a funny dog.”
That short answer has served well enough, but is there more to it. . .
[To Be Continued]