Off The Shelf @ Your Library

By Kathy Pillatzki

Last month PBS released the list of 100 finalists in The Great American Read, a nationwide contest to name America’s most-loved book. Throughout the summer, we’ll be surveying local residents to find out which book has your vote, and why.

Honestly, there are books on this list that I love, a few I hate, and some that I’ve tried and abandoned. Since the finalists were announced, I’ve completed two more: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Still, if I had to name just one favorite, it would be Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.

I was about ten when I discovered Rawls’ tale of canine devotion. I had, at the time, a case of puppy love. As Billy, the story’s narrator explains, “I don't mean the kind a boy has for the pretty little girl that lives down the road. I mean the real kind, the kind that has four small feet and a wiggly tail, and sharp little teeth.”

The assumption that this yearning is unique to boys notwithstanding, I felt an immediate connection to Billy. I knew that longing for a dog of my own. I was immediately absorbed in his struggle to earn money for a pair of redbone coonhounds. I thrilled at his first meeting with his mail-order puppies, sympathized with his efforts to train them, and ran with him through the moonlit Ozarks on their first hunt. And yes, I believe this was the first book that made me cry at the tender parts.

I have reread Where the Red Fern Grows as an adult, and was pleased to realize that it really is as good as I remember. Besides its appeal to my dog-loving nature, it is a vivid picture of life in a particular place and time. Billy’s grandfather is the only other fully-developed character, but the reader gets a very clear picture of a financially-strapped but caring family in a beautiful and harsh landscape. As a slice-of-life narrative, it’s outstanding.

I’m not the only one at Henry County Library System who’s voting for Rawls’ classic. Tracy, our Children’s Services Coordinator, said, “I first read it in third grade. It was an assigned read and I remember everyone crying when Ms. Williams got to the sad parts. She was teaching us about emotions in literature, and we had to write a story, after reading Where the Red Fern Grows, using expression. My heart was broken and I became the queen of expression! I was a third-grade ‘dramatic writer’ and I am where I am today because of assigned reading that made me want to read more.”

Not long ago my mother was cleaning out a closet in my childhood home and found my first copy of Where the Red Fern Grows. It is shabby from repeated reading, but having it back was like reuniting with an old friend. And speaking of old friends, I did get a beagle puppy for Christmas that year. I’ve owned dogs ever since.

To have your favorite included in a future column, check out the list of finalists at /the-great-american-read and send an email to with TGAR in the subject line.

Kathy Pillatzki is the Director of the Henry County Library System and a writer. She has raised four daughters, two of her own and two long-term exchange students. Kathy lives in Hampton with her husband, Dan, and an assortment of animals. In her spare time she enjoys traveling, reading and arguing with strangers.