Â©2004 by John R. Erickson. Used by permission.
I was surprised the first time an elementary school librarian invited me to read my Hank the Cowdog stories to her children.
I knew nothing about children’s literature and never dreamed that children could understand the subtle humor in a story whose main character might be summed up in a paraphrase of St. Paul: “That which I do, I should not, and that which I should not, I do–all the time.” Hank, who narrates the stories, exaggerates, often tells little lies to cover his mistakes, has no self-knowledge, and … well, isn’t very smart. That’s pretty subtle, and I wrote the first Hank book for adults, not children.
Six million books later–most of them purchased by or for children–it is clear that I was not a marketing genius.
I have received many letters from parents and teachers who said, “Thank you for giving our children something decent to read and for allowing them to enjoy innocent laughter.” I am glad they noticed. Kris and I raised three children (two of them homeschooled) in an X-rated society, and have lived in a constant state of outrage over its cultural products.
Some of those letters gave me a jolt. There were the ones that came from teachers of dyslexic children who had never read a book until they found Hank. Others came from mothers of children afflicted with that mysterious condition known as autism.
After I had gotten three of those letters in the space of a month, I wrote back to one of the mothers and asked, “What is your child finding in my stories? I know nothing about autism.”
She pointed out that autistic children fight a constant battle against mental chaos. They crave structure and order. My stories are tightly structured. They all have twelve chapters and the same cast of characters. They all begin with the same sentence (“It’s me again, Hank the Cowdog”) and end with, “Case closed.” They all have happy endings and in every story, justice is affirmed. When Hank makes a dumb mistake, he pays for it. When he makes a good decision, he enjoys a moment of triumph–before he blunders off into another mistake.
Those letters didn’t come from literary critics. They came from mothers and teachers who were involved every day in the process of nurturing–giving life. And from them I learned that my business is not books. It’s nourishment.
I’m not much inclined to give theological interpretations to stories that were meant to be funny, but those letters forced me to think about the spiritual dimension of storytelling.
The opening chapter of Genesis tells us that God’s first act of creation was to impose structure on the primeval chaos, separating the dry land from the water, day from night, earth from sky, and male from female. This made it possible for other distinctions to arise, such as right and wrong, justice and injustice. Without a divine structure, there is no difference between them. All we have is chaos.
A structured story says, without saying it, that there is order in the universe, and in this crazy modern world, that becomes a profoundly religious statement, an affirmation of the divine act of creation. Kids are drawn to it by instinct because they have a natural craving for structure and meaning. We all do.
And yet popular culture offers just the opposite: frantic television images that have no coherence, movies that cannot distinguish between heroes and villains, art that seems to have lost all vision of form and beauty, books with characters we would never invite into our homes, and jagged “music” that offers neither a melody nor harmony.
If the word “art” has any meaning, then surely it should aspire to something higher than the disorder that any fool can perceive on any street corner in any American city on any given day. If artists are more gifted than the rest of us, then let them find the order and harmony that are not so obvious to ordinary mortals.
Let artists return to the ancient notion that art and literature should NOURISH the human spirit, not poison it.
That statement would draw chirps of laughter in most college English departments, where the health of the reader seldom receives any consideration. If readers are spiritually maimed by their exposure to literature, well, too bad. You can sue a plumber who does shoddy work, but not an author who gives his readers toxic waste packaged between the covers of a book.
The enumeration of chaos in art, literature, and music strikes me as a particularly loathsome form of obscenity. If Marshall McLuhan was correct in saying that the medium is the message, then the message in chaotic art forms is that we live in darkness on a planet that God has abandoned.
And you don’t have to look far to see the results. In August 2004, I was honored to be a featured speaker at a convention of homeschoolers in Houston. On the trip downstate from the Texas Panhandle, my wife and I noticed the startling contrast between the young people we saw in the airports and those at the convention. The homeschooled children were serene, clear-eyed, polite, clean, at peace. They seemed to know who they were, and their sense of identity began in the knowledge that they are part of God’s creation. From that everything else flowed naturally. Their home-based education is a process of learning about the roles we are meant to play in a plan that was here before we were born, a plan we don’t have to re-invent every day.
In the airports we saw the children of pop culture: young people with empty eyes and graceless gestures; girls who showed no hint of modesty or virtue, and boys, flabby and tattooed, staring at nothing and bobbing their heads in time to the clattering sounds piped into their brains through headphones. Their appearance suggested a generation whose only purpose is to consume and feel good, and then, like summer moths, to die. Their faces revealed the tragedy of lives without the structure of God’s plan.
What we choose to see, hear, and read DOES matter. It matters greatly. People need good stories just as they need home-cooked meals, clean water, spiritual peace, and love. A good story is part of that process. It affirms divine order in the universe and justice in human affairs–and makes people better than they were before they read it.
Wouldn’t it be nice if writers used that as a standard for measuring their work? It makes more sense than fog-bound theories that allow them to peddle rubbish under the name of “literature.”
I find sad irony in the fact that, while mothers of dyslexic and autistic children fight day and night against mental chaos, popular culture scoops it out by the ton, infecting young people who were blessed with normal bodies and brains, and leaving them twisted and adrift.
If writers can’t improve the lives of their customers, then what is the point of literature?
You are welcome to pass this essay along to someone else or use it in a newsletter, as long as you include the name and copyright notice of the author. John Erickson can be reached at his Maverick Books Web site www.hankthecowdog.com.