Wilson Rawls was born September 24, 1913, to Minzy and Winnie Rawls. He grew up on a small farm near Scraper, Oklahoma. He was introduced to reading and its attendant joys by his mother. She read aloud from books purchased by his grandmother. For a long time he thought that all books, in his words, were "girl books." This mind-set ended when his mother brought home a book that changed his life. It was the story of a man and a dog, Jack London's Call of the Wild. This book changed Rawls' life. After reading it, he carried it around wherever he went, read it aloud to his dog, and considered it to be his first real treasure. Being the treasure that it was sparked an idea in Rawls that he, too, could be a writer. He decided that one day he would write a story that would affect others as Call of the Wild had affected him.
Rawls was born into a poor family. He was unable to attend school because there was no school where he lived. His mother taught her children to read and write. When a school was built, he attended two to three months in the summer. Later, his family moved to Tahlequah where he attended regularly but dropped out before he completed eighth grade because of the Depression. His ambitious dream never faded. He often talked to his father about his plan to write. Although his family was too poor to buy pencils and paper for him, his father's response gave Rawls hope and advice which he followed, "Son, a man can do anything he sets out to do, if he doesn't give up."
He kept his writing ambitions private from his peers and spent his teen years working as an itinerant carpenter. He worked for an oil company and later he worked construction in Mexico and South America. Other jobs included working on the Alcan Highway in Alaska, helping to build parts of five major dams in the United States, working in various West Coast shipyards, and serving as a crew member in the Oregon State Navy. Rawls worked jobs wherever he could find them. During all this time he wrote stories. In fact, he wrote on every scrap piece of paper he could get.
On August 23, 1958, at the age of forty-five, he married Ann Styczinski. Just prior to his marriage, Rawls opened the trunk, which he used as storage for all his writings, and proceeded to burn his dreams which had become reality written on paper. Included in the manuscripts which Rawls burned were five full-length novels, including Where the Red Fern Grows. Only after his wife persuaded him, Rawls rewrote the story which was based on his boyhood life. Where the Red Fern Grows appeared in the Saturday Evening Post as a serial under the title, "Hounds of Youth." Then Doubleday published it in book form. Later it ran again in two other newspapers.
Rawls declared himself a full-time writer in 1959 and lectured to students in elementary schools, secondary schools, colleges, and universities throughout the western part of the United States. He began traveling the eastern half of the United States in 1975. During these years Rawls encouraged youngsters to keep reaching for their goals. "As long as [you] are honest and truthful and don't hurt anyone along the way, [you] will have help in reaching [your] goal," he told them. When asked by children for some advice, Rawls always responded by saying,
Do a lot of reading. Do not worry about grammar and punctuation on your first draft. The important thing is to get your story down on paper. Your first work will probably need a lot of rewriting. You can worry about grammar and punctuation then. Remember, the more you write and rewrite, the better you will get. And most important of all, do not get discouraged. If you keep trying and don't give up, you will make it some day. The road can be rough, but the day you see your work in print will make it all worth it. Best of luck!
Rawls died of cancer on December 16, 1984, in his hometown, Marshfield, Wisconsin. Rawls was a member of the Authors Guild, Authors League of America, International Platform Association, and, among other things, a lifetime and honorary member of the Idaho PTA. Honors and awards bestowed on him include a nomination for the "Gold Star List" and the Evansville Book Award for Where the Red Fern Grows. Summer of the Monkeys was awarded the Sequoyah Children's Book Award, the William Allen White Children's Book Award, and the Golden Archer Award.