12 Things You Might Not Know About Where the Red Fern Grows

istock (blank book)
istock (blank book)

Where the Red Fern Grows, Woodrow Wilson Rawls’s touching tale of a boy and his loyal hounds, has been captivating audiences since its publication in 1961. Even if you loved the book when you read it in school, you may not know about Rawls’ background and inspirations for this classic coming-of-age tale. 

1. Rawls was an unlikely bestselling author. 

“Woody” Rawls was born in Oklahoma’s Ozark Mountains in 1913. He was one of six children, and since there was no school in the area, most of the family’s education came from his mother. She taught the kids to read and write as best she could; the children would take turns reading aloud to the group from whatever books she could get. When a school finally did open nearby, Rawls and his siblings had to wade across a river to get to class, and it was only open during summer months. Rawls put in four years at this modest school and later spent a few months in high school before the Depression forced him to get a job.

2. Another man-and-dog story inspired Rawls’ entire literary career

As a young child, Rawls wasn’t too interested in reading; he referred to stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Chicken Little” as “girl stories”—he just couldn’t identify or connect with the mostly female protagonists. But one day, his mother brought home a book that changed his life: Jack London’s Call of the Wild. The story of a man and his dog resonated with him, and he began to dream of writing a book like it someday. He eventually shared this dream with his father, who told him, “Son, a man can do anything he sets out to do, if he doesn’t give up.” 

3. The lack of education hurt Rawls’ chances at publication.

Although Rawls knew he wanted to be a writer from the time he was 9 or 10 years old, his unpolished command of spelling and punctuation doomed him in the eyes of prospective publishers. He wrote five manuscripts, including what would become Where the Red Fern Grows, but they were too rough to be published. Rawls later admitted, “The spelling was bad and I know absolutely no punctuation.”

4. Rawls burned all of his manuscripts. 

Rawls eventually settled into life as a carpenter and moved to Idaho to work at a defense installation. While there, he met his wife, Sophie. Instead of admitting to Sophie that he secretly dreamed of becoming a writer, Rawls burned everything he had ever written just before they were married. 

However, a few months later he confessed everything to Sophie, and she encouraged him to write again. In longhand, he replicated the story of a young boy and his hunting dogs. 

5. Rawls rewrote the book in three weeks—completely from memory. 

All that was left of the original manuscript were charred remains, but Rawls knew the story by heart. With his wife's support, he quit his job in order to focus all of his time and energy on the rewrite. He wrote nonstop for three weeks and absolutely refused to let anyone, even Sophie, read it until it was finished. 

He handed the manuscript over to Sophie and went to town for the day while she read. Rawls was sure Sophie would hate the novel. To his surprise, she called him and gushed, “Woody, this is marvelous. Come home and work on it some more and we'll send it to a publisher."

6. The finished product showed husband-and-wife teamwork.

Since Sophie had formal education, she helped Rawls smooth out the spelling and grammar. She also suggested that he beef up the tale because she believed that it was “too short to be a novel but too long to be a short story.” Rawls set to work, and soon he had written his signature book—all 35,000 words in longhand! Sophie typed it up, and together they delved into the world of publishing. 

7.  It was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post. 

Although the Post initially rejected Rawls’ story, it later accepted the work after the Ladies Home Journal sent it their way. (The Journal’s editors felt that it was not quite right for their magazine, but they liked it and wanted it to be seen.) In 1961 the tale was published as a three-part series titled The Hounds of Youth.

8. The book’s title was changed without Rawls’ permission.

When Doubleday picked up the novel for publication as a book, it changed the title to Where the Red Fern Grows in an attempt to market the book to adult readers. Rawls said Doubleday “broke [his] heart,”­ because now his children’s coming-of-age story was not even reaching children. 

9. The story is loosely based on Rawls’ own childhood. 

Before he settled down in Idaho, Rawls constantly wrote autobiographical fiction while traveling for work. He penned tales about the farms of the Ozark Mountains, stories that reminded him of stories from his youth. The first audience of these stories had been his own faithful boyhood companion, a bluetick coonhound. 

10. Sales were slow.

Where the Red Fern Grows wasn’t an overnight success when Doubleday released it in 1961. Even several years after its publication, Rawls was still working as a carpenter, and by the mid-'60s the novel was scheduled to go out of print. Then Rawls got an invitation to speak at the Intermountain Conference on Children’s Literature in Salt Lake City. Again, Sophie saved the day. Rawls later said, “I had never spoken in public before. I woulda backed out if I could of, but my wife wouldn’t let me. I wondered what I had got myself into now.” 

Rawls must have wowed the assembled teachers. After they returned home to their schools, orders for the book began pouring in from around the country, and Where the Red Fern Grows was finally a hit. 

11. Rawls only published one other book.

Rawls’s second novel, Summer of Monkeys, was published in 1976 and found even quicker success than Where the Red Fern Grows—perhaps due in part to his now reputable name.

12. Rawls was perhaps most influential as a motivational speaker. 

Following the success of his books, Rawls received invitations to speak at schools across America, where he told the story of his life and offered writing advice to students. Visiting over 2000 schools before he passed away in 1984, Rawls always brought a powerful visual aid:

I always take my second original manuscript of Where the Red Fern Grows to show the youngsters. I want to stress to them how important it is to learn to spell, punctuate, and mainly how important it is for them to stay in school. They always look at the manuscript in disbelief.

Rawls encouraged students to begin writing and stressed that getting one’s ideas down on paper was the first and most important step. In a letter to aspiring writers, Rawls wrote, “Do a lot of reading … Read all the books you can find on creative writing … Do not wait to start writing. You are never too young to start.”

Annotations in Copy of Shakespeare's First Folio May Have Been John Milton's

GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images
GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images

It's a well-known literary fact that William Shakespeare had an enormous influence on "Paradise Lost" poet John Milton, and new evidence suggests that super fan Milton—who even wrote a poem called "On Shakespeare"—might have owned his idol's first folio.

The folio, which contains 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, was published in 1623—seven years after the Bard’s death. An estimated 750 first folios were printed, with only 233 of them known to have survived, including one with annotations written throughout it. As it turns out, those scribbles might be Milton's.

According to The Guardian, Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren believes that Milton wrote those important annotations. Scott-Warren read an article about an anonymous annotator written by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. The Folio copy in question has been stored in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944, and Bourne was able to date the annotator back to the mid-1600s. (Milton died in 1674.) It was Scott-Warren who noticed that the handwritten notes looked similar to Milton’s handwriting.

"It shows you the firsthand encounter between two great writers, which you don’t often get to see, especially in this period,” Scott-Warren told The Guardian. “A lot of that kind of evidence is lost, so that’s really exciting.”

If the writing does indeed belong to Milton, it’s not the first time the poet has left notes on another writer's work; he supposedly marked up his copy of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Life of Dante as well. Scott-Warren and Bourne plan to pair up to find out if Milton left annotations on any other notable works.

"It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived—and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive,” Dr. Will Poole, a fellow and tutor at Oxford's New College said. "This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times."

11 Scrumdiddlyumptious Roald Dahl Facts

Ronald Dumont / Getty Images
Ronald Dumont / Getty Images

A world without Roald Dahl would be a world without Oompa Loompas, Snozzcumbers, or Muggle-Wumps. And who would ever want to live in a world like that? Celebrate the author with these gloriumptious facts about the master of edgy kids' books.

1. Writing was never Roald Dahl's best subject.

Dahl held onto a school report he had written as a kid, on which his teacher noted: “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.”

2. Making up nonsensical words was part of what Roald Dahl did best.

When writing 1982’s The BFG, Dahl created 238 new words for the book’s protagonist, which he dubbed Gobblefunk.

3. Roald Dahl's first profession was as a pilot.

And not just any pilot: Dahl was a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force during World War II. And it was a plane crash near Alexandria, Egypt that actually inspired him to begin writing.

4. Roald Dahl got into some 007 kind of stuff, too.

Alongside fellow officers Ian Fleming and David Ogilvy, Dahl supplied intelligence to an MI6 organization known as the British Security Coordination.

5. Roald Dahl's first published piece was accidental.

Upon recovering from that plane crash, Dahl was reassigned to Washington, D.C., where he worked as an assistant air attaché. He was approached by author C.S. Forester, who was writing a piece for The Saturday Evening Post and looking to interview someone who had been on the frontlines of the war. Dahl offered to write some notes on his experiences, but when Forester received them he didn’t want to change a word. He submitted Dahl’s notes—originally titled “A Piece of Cake”—to his editor and on August 1, 1942, Roald Dahl officially became a published author. He was paid $1000 for the story, which had been retitled “Shot Down Over Libya” for dramatic effect.

6. Roald Dahl's first children's book was inspired by the Royal Air Force.

Published in 1942, The Gremlins was about a group of mischievous creatures who tinkered with the RAF’s planes. Though the movie rights were purchased by Walt Disney, a film version never materialized. Dahl would go on to become one of the world’s bestselling fiction authors, with more than 100 million copies of his books published in nearly 50 languages.

7. Roald Dahl read Playboy for the articles.

Or at least his own articles. While he’s best known as a children’s author, Dahl was just as prolific in the adult short story sphere. His stories were published in a range of outlets, including Collier’s, Ladies Home Journal, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Playboy, where his topics of choice included wife-swapping, promiscuity, suicide, and adultery. Several of these stories were published as part of Dahl’s Switch Bitch anthology.

8. Quentin Tarantino adapted a Roald Dahl short story for the big screen.

One of Dahl’s best-known adult short stories, “Man from the South” (a.k.a. “The Smoker”), was adapted to celluloid three times, twice as part of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (once in 1960 with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and again in 1985) and a third time as the final segment in 1995’s film anthology Four Rooms, which Quentin Tarantino directed.

9. Roald Dahl's own attempts at screenwriting were not as successful.

One would think that, with his intriguing background and talent for words, Dahl’s transition from novelist to screenwriter would be an easy one ... but you would be wrong. Dahl was hired to adapt two of Ian Fleming’s novels, the James Bond novel You Only Live Once and the kid-friendly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; both scripts were completely rewritten. Dahl was also hired to adapt Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the big screen, but was replaced by David Seltzer when he couldn’t make his deadlines. Dahl was not shy about his criticisms of the finished product, noting his “disappointment” that the film (and its changed title) shifted the story’s emphasis from Charlie to Willy Wonka.

10. Roald Dahl made an important contribution to the field of neurosurgery.

In 1960, Dahl’s four-month-old son Theo’s carriage was struck by a cab driver in New York City, leaving the child suffering from hydrocephalus, a condition that increases fluid in the brain. Dahl became very actively involved in his son’s recovery, and contacted toymaker Stanley Wade for help. Together with Theo’s neurosurgeon, Kenneth Till, the trio developed a shunt that helped to alleviate the condition. It became known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve.

11. Even in death, Roald Dahl's sense of humor was evident.

Roald Dahl passed away from a blood disease on November 23, 1990 at the age of 74. Per his request, he was buried with all of his favorite things: snooker cues, a bottle of Burgundy, chocolate, HB pencils, and a power saw.

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