spacer Author Wilson Rawls
excerpted from Hey! Listen to This
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book cover=where the red fern grows, with words: author profile

(The following essay is excerpted from Jim Trelease's anthology Hey! Listen to This, one of more than 40 profiles contained there with each of the collected stories. See CONTENTS for a listing of all stories.)

by Jim Trelease, © 1992, 2007

spacer (See also Rawls' life story on audio cassette)

"N"spacerot all stories are published as soon as they are written and some take longer to write than others. Robert McCloskey spent a full year writing the 1,142 words in Make Way for Ducklings. E.B. White thought about and revised Stuart Little for nearly 15 years. But Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, is the only children's book I know that was completely burned before publication because of embarrassment by its author—after he'd spent nearly 20 years writing it!

Along with Call of the Wild, by Jack London, and Eric Knight's Lassie Come-Home, Where the Red Fern Grows is one of the great American dog stories. And like those other books, Red Fern is about far more than a dog. It's about a boy and his overwhelming dream to own a dog, it's about family life in the rural Ozark mountains in the early part of this century, and it's about hunting—which means it's about death, too.

But as much as anything it is about (Woodrow) Wilson Rawls, who said the book—with one or two exceptions—is a portrait of his boyhood in dirt-poor Scraper, Oklahoma. There were no schools available, so Wilson's mother taught her son and daughters at home as best she could. When the family moved to an area with schools, he attended for a few years until the Great Depression struck and he dropped out.

But during the years when his mother taught school at home, she'd made a practice of reading to her children. At first young "Woody" wasn't too interested in the books.

Cover of Rawls

compact disc

 

He thought all books
were girl stories
until . . .

part of cover for Rawls CD part of cover for Rawls CD part of cover for Rawls CD part of cover for Rawls CD
part of cover for Rawls CD part of cover for Rawls CD part of cover for Rawls CD part of cover for Rawls CD
 

"I thought all books were about 'Little Red Riding Hood' and 'Chicken Little'—girl stories!" he said. "Then one day Mama brought home a book that changed my life. It was a story about a man and a dog—Jack London's Call of the Wild.

call of the wild cover"After we finished reading the book, Mama gave it to me. It was my first real treasure and I carried it with me wherever I went and read it every chance I got." Climbing river banks and chasing raccoons through the woods, he began to dream of writing a book like Call of the Wild. But being too poor to even buy paper and pencils, he never dreamed that someday there would be thousands of children who would carry his book around as though it, too, was a treasure.

Beginning as a teenager, "Woody" bounced from place to place as an itinerant carpenter and handyman. He worked on construction jobs in South America and Canada, the Alcan Highway in Alaska. And along the way he began to write stories. But without formal classroom training, his spelling and grammar kept them unsold. Each one represented a broken dream and was hidden away in a trunk.

"A"nd then, just before he finally married and, not wanting Sophie, his wife-to-be, to know about his failed dreams, he took the old manuscripts from the trunk and burned them. Eventually his wife learned of the burned manuscripts and asked him to write one of them again. Hesitantly, he rewrote Where the Red Fern Grows—35,000 words—in three weeks of non-stop unpunctuated writing. When he was done, he left the house, unable to witness Sophie's disappointment. Hours later, he telephoned for her opinion.

"Woody, this is marvelous. Come home and work on it some more and we'll send it to a publisher," she said. Since Sophie had formal education, she polished up Woody's spelling and grammar and together they ventured into publishing.

#Their first triumph was in selling it to the Saturday Evening Post, where Lassie Come-Home had been serialized 20 years earlier. Rawls. work was serialized in three parts and when Doubleday editors saw it they recognized the potential for a book. At first it sold very slowly and almost went out of print—largely because it was being marketed as an adult novel, not children's. But once teachers and students experienced it, they began a word-of-mouth publicity campaign in the late '60s that boosted sales and, with the arrival of the Bantam paperback edition, it has been a perennial favorite ever since.

Wilson Rawls wrote one more book, Summer of the Monkeys (Doubleday/Dell) before he died in 1984 at the age of 71. Like Red Fern, it has legions of followers. Where the Red Fern Grows is also available as a recorded book. The film of the book was narrated briefly by Wilson Rawls in the 1970s, but he had nothing to do with the movie/video sequel or with the new video, neither of which have enjoyed critical success.

HAVE YOU READ: If you enjoy Where the Red Fern Grows, you'll want to try some of these popular dog stories: Call of the Wild and White Fang, both by Jack London; Danger Dog by Lynn Hal; A Dog Called Kitty by Bill Wallace; Foxy by Helen Griffith; Kavik, the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey; Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight; Old Yeller and Savage Sam, both by Fred Gipson; the Shiloh trilogy: Shiloh; Saving Shiloh; and Shiloh Season, all by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor; Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner; and The Wolfling by Sterling North.

Searching for Wilson Rawls' Missing Life

spacer   A note from Jim Trelease on this author profile

"W"ith the growing popularity of his book in the 1970's, Wilson Rawls was frequently invited to speak with children and teachers at schools and libraries across America. His speech, nearly always the same, was the story of his life and how he came to write, destroy, and resurrect his famous book.

Though I'd been a devoted fan of Where the Red Fern Grows, I never had the opportunity to meet or hear the author. But those who had been in his audiences always told me, "It was the greatest author speech I'd ever heard. One minute you were doubled over laughing, the next minute wiping away the tears."

Rawls CD cover

Strangely, much of the personal (and important) information included in his speech never made it to the traditional resources for author information. Indeed, the book's dust jacket profile amounted to a couple of colorless sentences. So I began to hunt for a copy of his speech—print or audio—in hopes of getting his personal story in his own words. Alas, no one seemed to have a copy. Editors, publicists, professors, publishers—many had heard it but no one had a copy.

Finally, after almost a dozen years, a reference librarian in Idaho Falls, ID, where he had written Red Fern while living there, mailed me the photocopy of an old obituary notice that appeared in the local paper after the Rawlses had moved away and he had died. There in the obituary were the addresses I needed—his widow's and his sister's.

"Why, yes," said Sophie Rawls on the phone that day. "I have a copy of his famous speech. It's on tape, right here in the desk drawer. Do you really think anyone would be interested?" Today she has set up a trust fund that channels the royalties from the tape into student scholarships. To listen to a three-minute excerpt from that tape (if you have the RealAudio free plugin), click on Rawls Excerpt.

rawls statue Brawls statue Aspacer spacer"I"n 1996, I had the pleasure of giving a speech to the Idaho Falls community at their civic center. When I told them of Rawls' adventures in rewriting his famous book in the midst of their lovely city, many were amazed: they had no idea it had been written there. Such confusion will no longer be possible.

Following that evening, Dave Schjeldahl, principal of Temple View Elementary in Idaho Falls, initiated a campaign to raise the funds that would erect a statue of a barefoot boy and his dogs; it now stands in front of the Idaho Falls Public Library, reminding passersby of the man who also passed that way and left a mark that will be read and treasured for generations to come.

 

 To hear excerpt from Rawls recording:
To order Rawls audio recording click AUDIO

In May 2011, in conjunction with the annual Red Fern Festival in Tahlequa, Oklahoma, the American Library Association designated the Tahlequa Public Library a Literary Landmark in honor of Wilson Rawls. The library was frequented by Rawls during his youth when he lived on the family farm outside Tahlequa in Cherokee County. The festivities, as well as a video overview of the author's life, can be viewed below as well as on YouTube at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=xshr_10N-v4&feature=youtu.be


Other author profiles here by Jim Trelease:

img=beverly clearyBeverly Cleary author profile by Jim Trelease img=gary paulsen
Gary Paulsen author profile by Jim Trelease
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