(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.)
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 authorafter he'd spent
nearly 20 years writing it!
with Call of the Wild,
by Jack London, and Eric Knight's Lassie
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 huntingwhich
means it's about death, too.
as much as anything it is about (Woodrow)
Wilson Rawls, who said the bookwith
one or two exceptionsis
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.
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
thought all books
were girl stories
until . . .
"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 dogJack London's Call
of the Wild.
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.
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.
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 Grows35,000 wordsin 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.
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
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 printlargely
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.
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
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
Saving Shiloh; and Shiloh
Season, all by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor; Stone
Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner; and The
Wolfling by Sterling North.
Wilson Rawls' Missing Life
note from Jim Trelease on this author profile
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
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."
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 speechprint
or audioin hopes of getting his personal story
in his own words. Alas, no one seemed to have a copy.
Editors, publicists, professors, publishersmany
had heard it but no one had a copy.
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 neededhis widow's and his
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
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.
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.
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
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