Wilson Rawls, born Woodrow Wilson Rawls, (September 24, 1913 — December 16, 1984) was an American writer best known for his books Where the Red Fern Grows and Summer of the Monkeys.Wilson was married in 1958 and died in 1984. He wanted to start writing books when he was in his teenage years.
Wilson Rawls was born on September 24, 1913, in Scraper, Oklahoma to Minzy and Winnie (Hatfield) Rawls. He grew up on a farm in the Ozark Mountains, the setting he described in his novels. Since there were no schools in the area, Rawls’ mother taught Wilson and his sisters how to read and write. Rawls’ grandmother would order books for his mother, and she used these books to teach her children how to read. Their mother would read the books, and then the children would take turns reading the books back to their mother (Holtze, 1989). In the beginning, Rawls was not interested in reading books because his grandmother always ordered “girl” books such as Little Red Riding Hood and Chicken Little. One day his grandmother ordered a book that changed Rawls’ life. It was a story about a man and a dog. The book was Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. After reading the book, Rawls’ mother gave it to him to keep. It was his first “very own” book, and Rawls carried it with him wherever he went. One day, Rawls got the idea that he wanted to write a story like The Call of the Wild. He was about ten years old when he decided that he wanted to become a writer (Holtze, 1989). Rawls’ father told him that he would need an education to become a writer, so Rawls decided to educate himself by reading various books. He developed an appreciation for different types of writing, and his passion for reading remained with him throughout his life. Rawls started writing by describing the places and surroundings of his home. The first writings by Rawls were scribbled in the dust of the country roads and the sand banks along the river where he lived (Holtze, 1989). In 1928, his family moved to Elkview, West Virginia, and Rawls attended junior high in Muskogee until he was forced to leave when the Great Depression came.
When Rawls was about fifteen, the Depression hit the country and his family left Oklahoma, bound for California. However, the family convertible broke down just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico where Rawls’ father found a job. During the 1930s and 1940s, Rawls became a carpenter and traveled to South America, Canada, and Alaska working on construction sites. As he traveled, he began writing and wrote five manuscripts including Where the Red Fern Grows. Due to his lack of a formal education, Rawls’ manuscripts had many spelling and grammar errors. Because of the errors, he did not show the manuscripts to anyone, and kept them hidden in an old trunk in his father’s workshop. In the late 1950s, Rawls was working for a construction company on a guided missile range in the Southwest. The construction company had a contract at the Atomic Energy Commission’s site west of Idaho Falls. Rawls was transferred to this area and lived in a cabin in the Mud Lake area. This is where he met his future wife, [Sophie Ann Styczinski]. Sophie was a budget analyst for the Atomic Energy Commission. The couple was married on August 23, 1958.
Just before Rawls married, he made a trip to his parents’ home and burned all hismanuscripts. He was ashamed of his work and decided to forget his dream of becoming a writer. Unable to forget about his dream of becoming a writer, he later confessed to his wife about his burned manuscripts. Sophie encouraged Rawls to rewrite one of his stories.Rawls rewrote Where the Red Fern Grows in three weeks. When he was done, he gave the manuscript to Sophie for her to read. He waited hours before calling to hear her opinion, fearing that she would not approve. Her response was, “Woody, this is marvelous. Come home and work on it some more and we’ll send it to a publisher” . Since Sophie had a formal education, she undertook the job of editing the book before sending it to publisher. The Saturday Evening Post purchased the rights to Where the Red Fern Grows and printed it in serial form under the name “Hounds of Youth.” Doubleday printed Where the Red Fern Grows as a book in 1961 . At first, the book sold slowly because it was marketed as an adult novel. When students and teachers started to read it, they began a word-of-mouth publicity campaign in the late 60's that boosted sales of the novel. When Where the Red Fern Grows became a success, Doubleday started booking speaking engagements for Rawls in schools across the United States."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. I hope I have some effect on these youngsters, I so enjoy each and every one of them."
Where the Red Fern Grows was largely autobiographical. The main character, Billy Colman, grew up in a poor family in the Ozarks during the Depression. Billy wished for two hound dogs to call his own. He finally saved enough money to buy two hound puppies, and trained them to be competitive hunting dogs. However, Billy lost one dog to a mountain lion, and the other dog died from grief over the loss of the first dog. Billy lived with his parents and sisters and did not attend school. His first visit to town takes place during the story. At the end of the book, Billy’s family moves from the country to town. Like Billy, Rawls grew up on a farm in the Ozark Mountains. He also came from an impoverished family and did not attend school. Rawls was taught by his mother and grandmother along with his sisters. In order to find work, the Rawls family also left the Ozark Mountains like the family in Where the Red Fern Grows .Rawls’ second novel, Summer of the Monkeys, was published in 1976. This book tells the story of an Oklahoma teenager, Jay Berry Lee, growing up in the early 1900’s. Jay Berry Lee finds a group of monkeys who have escaped from the circus. Jay decides to capture the monkeys in order to collect the reward for their return to the circus. He plans to buy himself a horse with the reward money, but does something unselfish instead. Jay pays for an operation that his sister needs on her leg.Where the Red Fern Grows and Summer of the Monkeys both won numerous awards, especially awards voted on by children. Where the Red Fern Grows was a Literary Guild selection and was made into a motion-picture by Doty-Dayton Productions in 1974 (Holtze, 1989). Rawls and his wife spent time on location in Oklahoma when the movie was being filmed and Rawls recorded the narration for the movie. A house identical to Rawls’ childhood home was constructed for the movie and has now become a tourist attraction. Walt Disney Productions also made a movie of Where the Red Fern Grows in 2003. Summer of the Monkeys won the 1979 William Allen White Award and was made into a movie by Walt Disney Productions in 1998.
Even though Rawls’ novels received much praise, he was perhaps most influential asa motivational speaker. Rawls visited 2,000 schools in twenty-two states before being diagnosed with cancer in 1983. Although Rawls and his wife had no children, he felt that he had many children in his fans. He once commented,
Children are always asking me what advice I can give them on trying to be a writer. I always tell them to do a lot of reading, read and study creative writing, then start writing and keep writing and then they can be a writer to. Someday they will make it if they don’t give up .
Wilson Rawls was living proof that dreams can come true. As a young boy, he wanted towrite a story like The Call of the Wild. Where the Red Fern Grows was a heart wrenching story of the bond between a boy and his beloved dogs. Before his death, on December 16, 1984, Rawls only had one regret. It was that he could not take a copy of his book to his father and say, “It took a long time Papa, but I made it and I am loving it".(Woodrow Wilson Rawls)