Top 100 Children’s Novels #34: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
I remember crying so much through this book, and even today I tear up thinking of Big Dan and Little Ann. I also loaned this to my (then) children’s librarian, because the library copy was always out. I even marked the pages, “Get out tissue here.” – DeAnn Okamura
I love, love, love this book with all my heart and soul. My fourth grade teacher read it to me eons ago, and I’ve read it to two of my three boys. There’s something about weeping together uncontrollably that builds a community of readers… – Tess Alfonsin
I suppose there might be some question as to whether or not this book belongs on the list since it was initially published (mistakenly, I personally believe) as an adult novel. However, since 1961 the book has been marketed to kids and that has worked out quite swimmingly. On this Top 100 Children’s Novels List I am counting “classics” that may not have initially sought out kids as their primary audience, but found their way there eventually. This title certainly slots into that category (and accounts for why it didn’t win any children’s literary awards at the get-go).
The plot from the Scholastic Literature Guide reads, “At age 10 Billy Colman decides he must have two hound dogs. It takes him two years to save the money, but he finally has enough to order the dogs. He names his pups Little Ann and Old Dan. From then on, Billy and his dogs spend most nights hunting raccoons along the river bottom in the foothills of the Ozarks where he lives. As Billy becomes prouder and more attached to his dogs, it becomes clear that they are a unique team. Old Dan is a bold fighter and Little Ann is as smart as they come. The dogs are intensely loyal to one another and to Billy. The story is packed with hair-raising hunting adventures and glorious moments of triumph. By the time Billy’s grandpa enters the dogs in a championship coon hunt, they are known all over the county. Billy and his dogs win the contest but not long afterward, they encounter a mountain lion while hunting. In killing the lion Old Dan becomes fatally injured. Little Ann dies soon after from grief, and Billy buries them both in a lovely spot on top of a hill.”
How did it come about? Jim Trelease in Trelease on Reading puts it a funny way: “Not 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!” Much of the book was based on Rawls’ own childhood in the appropriately named Scraper, Oklahoma. He spent much of his life writing, but before he married his wife he burned all his manuscripts up. She asked him to rewrite one of them, so in three weeks he wrote (or rewrote, depending on how you look at it) Where the Red Fern Grows. It was sold to the Saturday Evening Post, did poorly because they thought it was for adults, and then in the late 60s teachers and kids got ahold of it and made it a huge hit.
There’s a rather funny “Review of Where the Red Fern Grows” by Robert Wilfred Franson at Troynovant that makes some interesting points about the book that I’d not known before. For example, the sisters are never mentioned by name, which is a bit odd. And then there’s this note: “There are other intriguing moral lessons in Where the Red Fern Grows. For instance, during a challenge to find a particularly wily raccoon, a local young bully-boy and his bully-hound come to fatal ends while crossing our hero and his dogs. But nobody worries much about accidental deaths; the bully’s own family is no more excited than they’d be to see a coon fall out of a tree. So that’s all right.”
- The Mississippi lesson plans for this book are particularly fascinating.
- A cake of the book anyone?
For years I’ve collected information about statues of famous children’s literary characters. I had no idea until I started researching this book, however, that there is a statue of Billy and his dogs at the Idaho Falls Public Library. Amazing.
There are at least two filmed versions of the book. The first was from 1974. You can see a bit of it here.
Re: The song that plays at the beginning of that clip…. oh, 1974. Never change.
I guess I always thought that Dave Matthews made his film debut in Because of Winn-Dixie. Nope. It was in the 2003 version of Where the Red Fern Grows, I guess. The man has a thing for dog movies.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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