TAHLEQUAH — "Where the Red Fern Grows,” a story about a boy and his dogs, was a novel, a movie and more recently served as inspiration for an annual festival that kicks off today in Tahlequah. "It is a timeless story and appeals to everyone,” said Kate Young Kelly, Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce tourism director. "We should all be proud that one of our native sons authored ‘Where the Red Fern Grows.’” The Red Fern Festival, which won awards in 2007 and 2008 from the state Tourism and Recreation Department and the Oklahoma Travel Industry Association, continues through Saturday at Norris Park in downtown Tahlequah. The festival is based on the semi-autobiographical novel written by Wilson Rawls, who grew up in Scraper in Cherokee County and died in 1984 in Idaho. The book tells the story of Billy Coleman and his adventures with two redbone coonhound hunting dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, in the Tahlequah area near the Illinois River. Old Dan dies after protecting Billy from an attack by a mountain lion, and Little Ann mourns the loss of Old Dan and dies beside his grave. As Billy and his family leave the family homestead, Billy visits his dogs’ final resting place and finds a red fern growing between the two graves. The story retells an Indian legend about a little girl and boy who were lost and froze to death in a blizzard. When they were found in the spring, a red fern was growing between their bodies. According to the legend, only angels can plant a red fern and wherever it grows is sacred. The book is in the curriculum of at least 50 percent of schools in the United States, and its popularity does not seem to be waning, Kelly said. The Tahlequah Chamber receives letters and telephone calls from students and teachers asking about Tahlequah, because the story intrigues them and they want to learn more, Kelly said. "What a great book,” said James Bryant, Jay Middle School principal. "I remember my third grade class begged our teacher, Mrs. Maynard, to read it to us every day,” Bryant said. "I also remember more than anything about her reading it to us, is how much she cried.” As a young father, Bryant read the story to his daughter Emily. "I had second thoughts when she cried so hard that we could barely finish the book,” Bryant said. "I actually felt guilty and questioned whether I should have read it to her.” Now Emily, an 18-year-old Jay senior, tells her father it was that story time that turned her into an avid reader. Founded in 2007, the festival has grown from 1,500 visitors to about 10,000, Kelly said. A descendent of one of the dogs used in the 1974 movie, Dalton, was parade grand marshal the first year. Last year the festival honored Stewart Peterson, who played Billy in the original movie. This year Jack Ging, who portrayed Billy’s father, will serve as grand marshal. One of the highlights of this year’s festival will be the hound dog field trials. Other events included vintage-style games, a chili cookoff, arts and crafts and a car show.