A Lubbock teacher continues to win awards for his children’s book series about Wilder Good, and plans for another book in the series to be released this spring.
Nathan Dahlstrom, who writes under the pen name of S.J. Dahlstrom, said his fifth book, “Black Rock Brothers,” is set for publication in April. Dahlstrom is also a teacher at Hutchinson Middle School in the Lubbock Independent School District.
In 2017, his most recent book, “The Green Colt,” won a Spur Award in the juvenile category from the Western Writers of America, a Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Western Heritage Awards and a Will Rogers Medallion.
Talking about the awards in his home in Lubbock over the Christmas break, Dahlstrom said he does the best job he can, but winning an award “means at least someone else read your book. It feels good.”
There are bigger rewards as an author, though.
His 6-year-old son’s kindergarten teacher read two or three of Dahlstrom’s books to his son’s class, and a fourth-grade teacher did a whole unit teaching on Dahlstrom’s “Texas Grit.”
“That’s fun for me as a dad, even though he’s already read the books, and they’re part of our life, that his kindergarten teacher would recognize the books and read them to the whole class,” Dahlstrom said. “That’s the great reward, I think in writing a children’s book, that you get to write them for your kids. That’s who I write them for, you know? I wrote the first one because I wanted my kids to know these stories, and have those values that I was raised with. I can teach z(the values) to them, but it’s also fun to put them down in books.”
Dahlstrom said he does try to share his view that he wants kids to get outside and explore the world, but as a children’s author, he said has to be very careful about what he writes.
“You’re putting up the framework of a child’s mind, and their worldview and how they see the world. We learn meanings of the world through stories. I don’t know why we respond to stories, but beginning, middle and end, we respond to that, and we love that. And we begin to interpret the world through those stories. And if you give kids the wrong stories, I think, at the wrong age, you can actually do damage. A children’s author should never be writing from an ego that wants to get their junk out there or deal with their issues when writing children’s books,” Dahlstrom said.
It’s important to point children toward things that are good and nourishing and from a place that encourages self-discovery, he said. He hopes his books push kids toward nature. He said he hopes children who read his books finish them and say, “I want to go out and explore the outdoors.”
Many books today push a lot of political world views and ideologies, which he said authors like C.S. Lewis and Laura Ingalls Wilder were not concerned with, and a lot of great children’s literature was not concerned with in the past.
Dahlstrom’s book shelf is packed full of books by Lewis and Wilder, as well as classics like “Huckleberry Finn,” “Treasure Island,” “Robin Hood” and “Peter Pan.” His own books can be spotted in the midst of these, although Dahlstrom said they aren’t the same quality as the classics.
“I’m shooting for it,” he said. What makes those other books great is that any age group can read them.
Students who are in late middle school and high school are reading more adult books, he said, and that time is more appropriate for children to think about politics.
Dahlstrom should know about what is appropriate for middle-schoolers — he teaches English at Hutchinson, as well as a class with mostly eighth graders in creative writing. His students are expected to complete a novel by the end of a school year.
“They bring me their Harry Potter and their Lord Voldemort, and I get to read it,” Dahlstrom said. “I can’t wait to go talk to my kids and talk about their stories some more.”
After teaching them about great plotting and character development — and about bad versions, too — he said he knows they will be more skeptical and sophisticated as readers and as viewers, as well as stronger academics and writers.
“At this age, those kids eat that up, because they want to look at the world in a more sophisticated way than just Transformers, big robots with lasers shooting out of their eyes and girls in bikinis. They’re drawn to that, but they’re already getting a sense that there’s more to great storytelling, there’s more to great film, there’s more to great art, than just this cotton candy that’s being thrown at them,” Dahlstrom said.
When you are doing a great job of storytelling, he said, you don’t have to fill it up with the garbage that “junky storytellers” have to stuff in all of the cracks to get people to see their work.
His newest book will be released in April, and it will be different because none of the many adults who serve as mentors in Wilder Good’s life will be in it.
“It’s Wilder and his two best friends. They’re going on a big adventure, backpacking,” Dahlstrom said. “It’s considerably longer. It’s about twice the size of ‘The Green Colt.’ So it’s the big, epic boyhood trip.”
One of the boys is a foster child, a subject Dahlstrom also knows about because he worked on a boys ranch for several years.
“I spent 15 years of my first career in children’s homes and boys ranches, so I spent a lot of time with foster kids and abused kids and at-risk kids. It kind of tells that story, of the typical — which doesn’t mean anything — but a foster kid that goes on the adventure with them,” Dahlstrom said.
Dahlstrom’s mentor is Hank the Cowdog author John R. Erickson, who describes the younger author as “an extraordinary young man who has the knowledge, discipline and spiritual depth to pass blessings along to others.”
Erickson said he believes that is something art should do, and he is very proud of Dahlstrom.
Kay Ellington is the editor and publisher of Lone Star Literary Life, which celebrates Texas authors. She said she believes Dahlstrom’s books provide a setting that a lot of young readers in rural Texas areas can relate to.
“They sort of provide the next level of books after the Hank the Cowdog books that John Erickson writes. I think they’re very relatable. They deal with stories about hunting and fishing and ranching and farming, but they do it from maybe the perspective of a nine- or 10-year-old, and that’s not always easy to find,” Ellington said. “They’re also very family-oriented, very wholesome, not anything terribly controversial.”