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The year was 1961. The story was "How the Red Fern Grows". The author was Wilson Rawls. The publisher was Doubleday. The readers' reception was lukewarm at best. How did Wilson's book become a bestseller?
Wilson Rawls grew up on a farm in the Ozarks, dreaming of becoming a writer. While working construction in Mexico, he started penning a story about a young boy named Billy growing up in the Ozarks with two hunting dogs. He would hunt raccoons and then take their pelts to his grandfather's shop to sell. While exploring the Ozarks, he met mountain lions. He also met a pair of pups, Old Dan and Little Ann, who later died after a lion attack. The boy, heartbroken, buried the dogs. Later a red fern grew between the dogs' graves. An Indian legend states that a red fern is planted by an angel and this sign restored the little boy's faith in God.
Photo courtesy redbubble.net.
Once complete, Wilson Rawls rolled up his manuscipt and tucked it into a trunk at his parents' house where it collected dust. In the meantime, he met his fiancee Sophie. Embarrassed to admit that he never realized his dream of becoming a published author, Wilson burned his all of his manuscripts a week before he got married. Three months later, he admitted what he had done to his wife who insisted that he rewrite his stories. In six weeks, he had rewritten the story about little Billy and the hounds. Thinking his wife would hate the story, Wilson left the house for the day while she read the finished product. But her reaction was the reverse: "this is the most wonderful boy and dog story I've ever heard".
Sophie insisted that Wilson submit it for publication. But first she had him lengthen the story in longhand and then she typed it out for him. Wilson mailed the manuscript tot he Saturday Evening Post whose editor said no within three weeks. He waited four months only to be rejected by Ladies Home Journal as well. However, the LHJ editor suggested resubmitting the story to Saturday Evening Post. This time, the Post said yes. They published the story as "The Hounds of Youth".
Readers like that story enough that it Wilson got a book contract out of it with Doubleday, this time as Where the Red Fern Grows. However, once the books reached the shelves, they collected dust for the next six years. Then, a Doubleday agent named Mr. Breinholt begged to be given a chance to market the book again. He gathered 5000 reading teachers and librarians at the university of Utah and showed them the book. They in turn read the book to their students who were instantly hooked. Sales skyrocketed and have increased every year since.
Photo of Ozarks courtesy www.ozarkmtns.com.