Isn't it funny how a person's life can be changed by the little things?
In the case of former Pasadena attorney Richard Lynn Stack, the little things included what he thought was a dreadful Christmas cartoon about hockey-playing raccoons. He recalled saying that he could do better, and was promptly challenged to do so.
The other thing was a tiny lost mutt that adopted his neighborhood, and Stack in particular.
The dog, named Josh by his new friend,is the hero of two successful children's books written by Stack -- "The Doggonest Christmas," published in 1988, now in its third printing, and the just-released "The Doggonest Vacation."
Their "collaboration" actually began after Stack, 49, started his first book, which is about an enterprising little dog who enlists the aid of his friends to help Santa Claus out of a spot. He noted a surprising resemblance between his new-found friend and the illustrations of the dog in his story, whose name was Josh.
The new book concerns the adventures Josh has during his first vacation, when he and his owner, Miss Elly, encounter an ill-treated retriever who ran away from his master. All ends happily however, with some clear, yet understated lessons on the virtues of kindness, respect for others, religion, patience and tolerance.
"I think there's not enough of that going on," Stack saidof the themes in his books. "This is a generalization, there are certainly some very, very good exceptions to this -- but a great many authors seem to be catering to children's baser interests, instead of trying to provide something they can enjoy plus the messages."
His books' popularity encouraged Stack to quit his law practice and become a full-time writer of children's fiction. He and Josh have become veteran travelers up and down the East Coast, doing personal appearances at schools, book fairs and book stores.
"When I wrote that (first) book, I had no idea what to expect," Stack said, "I had never planned to be an author, it just kind of came about."
Stack said he was told by various book and marketing industry experts that the flurry of interest in his work was essentially seasonal and local.
However, "after Christmas, to my surprise, we kept receiving requests to visit schools. It was something of a disruption to the office, because I kept having to jump in and out of the role of an attorney, and really being aggressive, and then going into something much more moderate with young kids, and in a much lighter vein."
As for its strictly local appeal, Stack decided to try a little experiment when he was invited to a wedding in Georgia last year.
"I asked the mother of the bride in Atlanta if she would schedule a couple of schools down there for me. I'd come down a day early and visit the schools. She did, and things went real well. We took Atlanta by storm. It was just amazing, the response we had. They asked us to hold over (the weekend)and we did a third school on Monday."
The regional office of the Great American Book Fair invited Stack and Josh to return to Atlanta later that spring to visit 10 other schools as part of a publicity tour.
"We sold 700 books in one week," Stack said. "Now, this was a Northerner in the Deep South selling a Christmas book just before spring vacation. At that point, I knew that there was no way that this was a Christmas phenomenon or a local author phenomenon."
Stack discussed the situation with his law partner and his staff, who agreed that he'd be foolish not to turn his foray into children's books into a full-time career.
"June 1, we stopped taking new cases, and after Sept. 1, 1989, we closed the practice and I was out on the road full-time in a motor home."
Since then, Stack has traveled to schoolsin Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Texas, Tennessee and Georgia as well as and Maryland. Together they have logged about 25,000 miles in Stack's motor home, around 40,000 by car.
With a backlog of over 1,000 requests for a visit, Stack said, plans are being developed for trips to the West Coast and Nevada.
"We've visited almost 500 schools andJosh has been petted about a million-and-a-half times by kids at schools," he said. "We're going to try and get him into the Guinness Book of Records as the most petted dog in the world."