Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, was published in 1961 by Delacorte.
Starting out right from the gate with spoilers, so be warned! I always knew Where the Red Fern Grows as “the one where the kid falls on an axe and dies.” I didn’t know it was a dog book, since I never actually read the book. But I’ve heard it compared to Old Yeller, so perhaps that should have been my first clue.
My fourth-graders read Old Yeller, and I have to say, I think Where the Red Fern Grows is far superior—so it baffles me that it doesn’t have any kind of award. The book is poignant and sweet, with a determined, likable protagonist and a gritty realism that is only lightly coated in nice things.
It also presents an attitude that is far underrepresented in children’s literature today, which is, of course, the prominence of religion and its role in someone’s life. Billy prays a lot, and his family talks about God a lot, and while there are a couple of inaccuracies (“God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible), it helps give a realistic tone to an area and a time that would have said and done those things. And it combines the religious aspect with a more superstitious, “legends of the hills” aspect, which also makes sense for the area and the time.
Since this is a dog book, yes, it is sad, and yes, the dogs do die, but this is a story about love, first and foremost, and even the death of the dogs shows that. This book has a lot to say about purpose and meaning and why things happen and love and sacrifice, which is why I think it’s superior to Old Yeller, which doesn’t have much of that. Where the Red Fern Grows is poignant and powerful and I’m sad that I never read it sooner.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Little Ann, one of the dogs, is called a “bitch” at one point, which is, of course, the word for a female dog.