Where the Redhead Grows

“Who is your favorite author?” the TV host asked me on the air.

I just blinked.

“My favorite author?”

Radio silence.

Sometimes, as a writer you will find yourself as a guest on TV shows and radio shows promoting stuff.

You’ll be on a television set that is an exact duplication of a family room. Except, of course, this family room has nuclear studio lights that cause third-degree sunburns and damage to the human cornea.

Beside you is a perky female morning host whose sole job is to promote your book on the air. These hosts, amazingly, manage to promote hundreds of books just like yours without having ever read a single sentence in their lives.

They do this by asking questions which make it sound as though they’ve read your book. But you know better.

Namely, because when they shake your hand they say in a sincere voice, “Thanks for being our show, Randy,” even though your name is, technically, Sean.

A favorite questions TV hosts often ask writers is: “Who’s your favorite author?”

Which is a solid TV question because, in most cases, your answer will buy the host a full three minutes, which allows them time to check their phone, scroll Instagram, and think up other insightful and intelligent questions such as, “How old are you?”

Usually, I reply that my favorite author is Gary Larson because I am a perpetual 10-year-old boy, and I think Gary Larson is a genius.

My response often causes television personalities and English majors to furrow their brows, because most literary folks can’t place the name Gary Larson.

Gary Larson is the illustrator and creator of “The Far Side” comic strip, once syndicated in 1,900 newspapers in the U.S. He is not often paired with Steinbeck and Hemingway.

Which is why the talkshow host simply smiles at me, then moves on to the next guest who will talk in-depth about stir-fry cooking, accordion maintenance, or crafting your own monogrammed toilet paper.

But the actual truth is, if I had to name my earliest literary hero, I would probably tell you Wilson Rawls.

You might not know who that is. So allow me to tell you.

I was in grade school when our teacher read “Where the Red Fern Grows” aloud. A novel about a boy and his coonhounds.

All students in our class were sniffling because it’s a heartrending book. I was the redheaded kid, crying harder than Kimberly Rogers. Which is saying something because Kimberly Rogers even cried during the Pledge of Allegiance.

Through the years, I got older, but “Red Fern” never did. I have read this book maybe a few hundred times. I can quote sections by memory.

“If a man’s word is no good, he’s no good himself.”

“…I could have heart-to-heart talks with my dogs and they always seemed to understand.”

“People have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time… You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love—the deepest kind of love.”

Rawls had no formal education. He grew up on a family farm in Oklahoma. He fell in love with the printed word and wanted to be a writer.

Then came the Great Depression. Rawls bounced around the country, living on railcars, working odd jobs. He was a grunt worker. A laborer. He lived in tents. Shaved with borrowed razors. Lived in Hoovervilles. He went hungry. Rawls went to prison in 1933 for stealing chickens to keep from starving.

And somehow he managed to write “Red Fern” in spite of it all.

When he first submitted his manuscript, he was middle-aged, and the editors laughed at him so hard their eye sockets bled.

I can just imagine a rural man clad in denim, rough hands and tanned neck, walking into a fourth-floor publishing office downtown. I can see him presenting a stained manuscript about coonhounds to a bunch of academic stiffs.

His manuscript was turned down, of course. It was riddled with misspellings, grammatical errors and no punctuation. No publisher would touch it.

But then the “Saturday Evening Post” magazine took a chance on Rawls. They published “Red Fern” in serial form. They paid him a pittance. And it became one of the best successes the magazine ever had.

As a high-school dropout, I relate to this man. As a dog lover, this man is my spiritual mascot.

Moreover, Rawls could have done anything after his success. But you know what he chose to do?

He spent the rest of his life traveling to schools to encourage kids to read and write. And I am one of those kids he encouraged.

I never met him, he died when I was a boy. But I wish I’d known him.

If I’d met him, I know what I would have done. I would’ve shaken his hand with both of mine. I would have probably reacted like Kimberly Rogers when I thanked him for altering the life of a middle-aged 10-year-old boy.

And then, I would have mustered all the courage I had and asked him who his favorite author was.


  1. Merlyn Tidemann - November 9, 2022 6:57 am

    Love it but the name is Larsen. Read you every day and some of the times pollen strikes me. ❤️

    • GUM teacher - November 9, 2022 11:52 am

      Fact check your spell check, ma’am. Gary Larson Far Side. Gary Larsen football player.

  2. Kristi - November 9, 2022 7:58 am

    Beautifully written tribute to an amazing man! I absolutely loved having Where the Red Fern grows read to me but then fell in love with reading it on my own. Thank you for the feels this post pulls up in me!

  3. Debbie - November 9, 2022 8:46 am

    I read the book to my kids when they were young. Great literary works like Where the Red Fern Grows and Little Women are useful for teaching good moral values to children.

    • Leigh Amiot - November 9, 2022 9:40 am

      Debbie, I still have my childhood copy of “Little Women” (and “Little Men”), and my childhood was over in the 1970s.

  4. Debbie - November 9, 2022 10:19 am

    Leigh, I also still have the books I read to my son and daughter.They are old and worn, and are treasures to me.They are reminders of precious times and memories with my kids.

  5. Susan - November 9, 2022 11:52 am

    I read Where the Red Fern grows in 5th grade. Still one of my all time favorites today. ❤️

  6. Ann - November 9, 2022 11:54 am

    Once again, inspiring! I don’t know how you do it,Sean, but you always do!

  7. Brian - November 9, 2022 11:56 am

    My favorite author has always been Pat Conroy. But for now, Sean, you are quickly becoming my new favorite.
    A very lovely story and article, like many of the others that I have been reading for the last few months.
    Thank you for all your fine efforts and work, Sir.
    Keep up the great work!

  8. chris - November 9, 2022 11:58 am

    Awesome book (s) for both authors! Two of my favorites….

  9. Rhett Talbert - November 9, 2022 12:00 pm

    I’m thinking that when you asked him about his favorite author, he likely would’ve said, “You.”

  10. Cathie Fowler - November 9, 2022 12:00 pm

    Just finished your new book. Well done! I’m ordering several as Christmas gifts. So glad Jamie is OK. Don’t stop writing!

  11. Mrs. Moore - November 9, 2022 12:02 pm

    He made me the reader (and thus teacher) I am today! I heard once (and whether it’s true or not- I tell my students each year before I read that precious book aloud) that after rejection he threw the original manuscript into his fireplace. He realized the story needed told, and as that was the only copy, rewrote the tale from memory. His rewrite was even stronger and was then ready for the Post. I love wherever you talk about the Red Fern- it hold such a special place in my heart. As a side note- I ended up with a coon hound myself several years ago and she has proven to be a loyal and loving dog. However, if she catches a dent in the air- she’s a runner- and she’s gone!

    • Nancy - November 9, 2022 1:38 pm

      Mrs. Moore, you may find this article interesting as it validates that Wilson Rawls did burn original manuscripts. Thank you for teaching me this morning. I’ve learned something interesting.

  12. Dolores - November 9, 2022 12:10 pm

    There’s no value that can be placed on reading to a child. I was the youngest of five, my oldest brother read to me at bedtime. The lack of heat upstairs was soon forgotten. I was with Heidi and her goats in the Alps.

    In grade school our school bus had to do two runs (rural Virginia). I was lucky enough to have to wait in bus duty while the first students were delivered home. School books were closed but our teacher read the classics to us while we waited. We’d be so enraptured by the stories we never heard the chug of the bus returning. But Miss Hager did. The whole room groaned aloud when she announced ‘and we’ll hear more tomorrow’. Ours was a farming community, so I along with my classmates I especially loved Charlottes Web.

    In our four room school there was a meager bookshelf in the media room slash cloak room. Another dear teacher, Mrs Frye drove to another larger school (with an actual library) and brought books to me. It was an woodland animals based series I was reading. I’d never had a teacher take such an interest, I felt spoiled. My best friend’s parents took her to our public library. Perhaps Mrs Frye noticed my envy.

    I regret I never told either teacher how I valued their efforts. If you have a teacher who made a difference, let them know.

    *There’s a far Side Facebook group, often the comments are as hilarious as Larson himself.

  13. Paul McCutchen - November 9, 2022 12:38 pm

    I am camping this week but I still read you every morning. Today you knocked it out of the park. I didn’t read enough when I was in high school but a teacher made me read “Where the red fern grows” and I loved it.

  14. BJ - November 9, 2022 12:47 pm

    One of the best books ever written!

  15. WayneGina Yount - November 9, 2022 1:02 pm

    Love this! ❤️

  16. Adam - November 9, 2022 1:03 pm

    I love The Far Side too!
    And Calvin & Hobbes.

  17. Lyn Brown - November 9, 2022 1:31 pm

    I salute your choice! Wonderful book; I, too, reread it. I tried to use it as a read aloud to middle school kids when I taught English, but I couldn’t stop crying.

  18. Patricia Gibson - November 9, 2022 1:33 pm

    I learned a lot today❤️

  19. Subi Wilks - November 9, 2022 1:36 pm

    I remember gathering my three now-grown sons into the living room to read Red Fern to them. I also remember them staring at me as I tried to read aloud while sobbing uncontrollably. 🙂

  20. Liza Sullivan - November 9, 2022 1:37 pm

    Well done. You always manage to reach folks with your words. Thanks.

  21. AlaRedClayGirl - November 9, 2022 1:52 pm

    I remember a book I read in high school that turned me into a reader. I read every book I could find by that author. Today I usually have 2-3 books at my beside that I read concurrently. Sometimes one of those books is by one of my favorite authors – Sean Dietrich! I have never read Where the Red Fern Grows but it is in my bookshelf. I think I will pull it out to add to my bedside collection.

  22. Kimberly - November 9, 2022 1:53 pm

    Love that book also. Read during jr high. One of the saddest books. Made me cry so much and I’m not much of a cryer but am a sucker for dogs and other animals.

  23. Renee C. Welton - November 9, 2022 2:16 pm


  24. JonDragonfly - November 9, 2022 2:51 pm

    Thank you for telling us the background story of Wilson Rawls. I was a volunteer reader to fifth graders for many years. On the recommendation of a neighborhood child I read “Red Fern” and from then on read it to every class. He was a tough little kid who admitted it was sad and, “I cried”. What better accolade could it get.

  25. Ginger Smithfield - November 9, 2022 2:57 pm

    Outstanding!! I loved this. One of my all time favorite authors is Lewis Grizzard, and in my book, Sean, you are right up there him!

  26. Ed (Bear) - November 9, 2022 3:17 pm

    When I meet you I will shake your hand with both of mine!

  27. nance - November 9, 2022 3:55 pm

    Gary Larson truly is a genius.

  28. Carol - November 9, 2022 4:06 pm

    Loved this! Red fern is one of my all time favorites. So glad to know the story of this author.

  29. Cherie Roberson - November 9, 2022 4:18 pm

    I cannot shout this loudly enough–You had me at Wilson Rawls. Now I will ever follow you and have shared this post on my socials… not because I love your writing, not because I too write words that amass into blogs and books that people may never care about, not because I love dogs and want a coon dog before I die, and not because you express the tension for a writer between writing simply because it’s our soul’s release and writing for the love of readers. BUT following you is cemented more as destiny because as an writer and reader you too hail Wilson Rawls as one of the greatest gifts to you.
    Where the Red Fern Grows is the first time that words on a page made me cry, over and over. It was then, as a young child, I knew words could magically free locked emotions. Thank you for your “Ode to Wilson Rawls.” Forever Fated Fan

  30. Emily Gravitt - November 9, 2022 4:22 pm

    I am a retired elementary school teacher. I always read this book to my class. They always loved it! And we always cried together!

  31. virginia westlake - November 9, 2022 4:38 pm

    Just last week I saw the movie for the first time and cried, of course. It brought back a memory of my daughter’s teacher reading it to her class in fifth or sixth grade. She cried and even the toughest boy in the class cried! The wonderful power of books!

  32. Sam Sparks - November 9, 2022 5:05 pm

    Ditto regarding Gary Larson!

  33. vickilclem - November 9, 2022 5:20 pm

    Thanks for sharing this! I’m from Oklahoma and had no idea he was from here. We need more people in the world like him and you who encourage kids to read and write and not give up!

  34. MAM - November 9, 2022 6:38 pm

    I’m with you, Sean. Please don’t ever ask me who my favorite author is or what my favorite movie is. I truly don’t know who my favorite author is, but the book I’m reading right now has a lot of great authors. It’s called the Bible. As for movies, I haven’t been to a movie in at least 10-12 years and don’t plan to go to any either. But “White Christmas” was a good one. And yes, “The Far Side” was awesome!

  35. Cheryl Andrews - November 9, 2022 6:40 pm

    Thank you for this! Two of the best books I ever read and read to my students are Where the Redfern Grows and The Summer of the Monkeys! ( I broke down and cried while reading Where the Redfern Grows to a class of mostly boys and they were crying too!l). I didn’t know Rawls’ history so thinks for telling his story. You’re the best!

  36. Jani - November 9, 2022 6:54 pm

    Wonderful…every one of your blogs…love them all…and who would have thought, with me being a Californian and all. Thank you Sean. Your books (which I’ve listened to narrated by you), left me weeping and full of heart. You are a gift, and I’ll be spreading the Sean of the South gospel to everyone in this god forsaken state of mine.

  37. pattymack43 - November 9, 2022 7:30 pm

    Where the Redfern Grows is truly an American classic!! Written by a humble man who knew the value of the written word. Thanks for reminding us, Sean!! Blessings!!

  38. Marilyn Jordan - November 9, 2022 7:54 pm

    I love Gary Larson and hated when he stopped his calendars. I have several pages that are many years old (in protective coverings) on my refrigerator. Even tho he is not considered an author, his cartoons spoke volumes.

  39. Linda Moon - November 9, 2022 8:06 pm

    Gary Larson and “The Far Side” rank way up there with me alongside Tolstoy and other great masters. “Where the Red Fern Grows” was on my students’ reading list, and I’m going to find my old copy of it and re-read it, thanks to you, Author. While glancing around just how, I spotted my biography of Sophia Tolstoy. I once had a paper-back-comic-book style of “The Far Side” and I hope I can locate it among my many books!

  40. Anne Goldberg - November 9, 2022 11:15 pm

    Sean, You must read another of his books. – The Summer of the Monkeys
    I promise you will LOVE it.

  41. Michael James McDaniel - November 10, 2022 1:35 am

    This was a snippet of great writing! Thank You

  42. Slimpicker - November 10, 2022 4:53 am

    Sean, it is obvious from your writings that you attended the school for the gifted. Gary Larsen would be impressed.

  43. Julia - November 10, 2022 8:28 am

    Sean, thank you so much. I appreciate you.

  44. Rev. Leland Locke - November 10, 2022 10:09 am

    Dear Mr. Sean:

    I, too, have read WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS more times than I can remember. It seemed to have spoken to me on a profound level during a young age, when I had a big dog, a black lab, as my best friend.

    A true THANKS is in order: Thank You, Mr. Sean, for writing about the author Wilson Rawls. I knew nothing of his past, nor his struggle to have his manuscript published. How would my childhood life have been without Old Dan and Little Ann? It would have been a great deal lonelier, that is for sure.

    And as far as your choice as a favorite author goes, well, one of mine will forever be Bill Waterson. I hope you know who that is.

    Have a good day.

  45. Annie - November 10, 2022 1:38 pm

    Bill Waterson

  46. Ruth Ann Van Donslear - November 10, 2022 4:37 pm

    I was a fourth grade teacher and read this book many times to my students. They loved it.

  47. Clint - November 11, 2022 2:51 am

    Oh my. I can remember staying in my fifth grade classroom during recess because I couldn’t put that book down. Also, watching Stewart Peterson and James Whitmore in the movie. I even came back early from a vacation with my aunt and uncle when I was 10 or 11 because it was showing on tv.


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