November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

“Clifford the Big Red Dog” Creator Norman Bridwell Dies at 86

Credit Rich White

Credit Rich White

“Clifford the Big Red Dog” creator Norman Bridwell died on December 12 in Martha’s Vineyard. The author-illustrator was 86.

Bridwell’s picture books about Clifford, a cheery red canine who starts off as a tiny puppy but grows to the size of a house due to the love of his owner, Emily Elizabeth, have been charming readers since 1962, with the publication of Clifford the Big Red Dog (Scholastic, 1962). Tons of subsequent books followed: Clifford’s Tricks (1969), Clifford the Small Red Puppy (1972), and Clifford’s Good Deeds (1975, all Scholastic), among others. An additional board book series, “Clifford the Small Red Puppy,” depict Clifford as a young puppy, and Bridwell also penned easy reader stories about the dog.

Clifford’s presence has long been felt off the page, too: the 1989 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade featured a balloon based upon the dog, and in 2000, PBS launched an animated TV series about Clifford and his friends. The franchise has also spawned countless toys, games, and other products.

However, Bridwell’s success came almost by accident. He initially set out not to become an author but rather an illustrator, but an editor at Harper & Row advised him to write and illustrate his own stories, telling him that one of his paintings—that of a little girl and a gigantic red bloodhound—might be a good starting point. Bridwell kept the color of the dog—which he had chosen because he had an open jar of red paint at his drawing board—but made him even bigger. He had planned to name the dog Tiny, but his wife suggested Clifford, after her childhood imaginary friend.

Though today Clifford is larger-than-life in every sense of the word, with the books selling more than 129 million copies in 13 languages and Scholastic devoting 2012 to celebrating the crimson character’s 50th anniversary, Bridwell’s achievements were hard won. Nine publishing houses turned down his manuscript for Clifford the Big Red Dog (Scholastic, 1962). The first book and its sequel, Clifford Gets a Job (Scholastic, 1965), enjoyed mild success, but it wasn’t until the books were reissued through Scholastic’s book club that they took off, delighting children and adults alike.

Simple yet heartwarming, most of the stories involve the well-meaning Clifford getting into trouble due to his size despite his best efforts but end happily, emphasizing the loving bond between the dog and his owner.

“The magic of the character and stories Norman created with Clifford is that children can see themselves in this big dog who tries very hard to be good, but is somewhat clumsy and always bumping into things and making mistakes,” said Dick Robinson, chairman, president, and CEO of Scholastic in a press release.

“He’s the kind of dog I think most people would want,” Bridwell said in a Scholastic-produced video commemorating Clifford’s 50th anniversary. “He’s always cheerful, he’s always a good-natured guy.”

Born in Kokomo, IN, Bridwell enjoyed telling stories and drawing from childhood, interests he continued to pursue in high school and long after. He attended the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis for two years and Cooper Union Art School in New York City for a year. He then went on to work as a commercial artist for several years. In 1958, he married Norma Howard, a fine artist, and the pair had two children, Emily Elizabeth (after whom he named Clifford’s owner) and Tim.

In addition to the beloved “Clifford” books, Bridwell was responsible for two other picture book series: “The Witch Next Door,” about a friendly witch and her neighbors, and the “Monster” (both Scholastic) series, containing riddles and jokes based on creatures such as vampires and werewolves. Bridwell wrote other, stand-alone picture books and illustrated for authors such as Mac Freeman and Jean Bethell.

Bridwell is survived by his wife, Norma, daughter, Emily Elizabeth, and son, Tim. Two “Clifford” books will be released in 2015: Clifford Goes to Kindergarten and Clifford Celebrates Hanukkah (both Scholastic).

“Bridwell’s books about Clifford, childhood’s most lovable dog, could only have been written by a gentle man with a great sense of humor,” said Robinson. “Norman personified the values that we as parents and educators hope to communicate to our children—kindness, compassion, helpfulness, gratitude—through the Clifford stories which have been loved for more than 50 years.”

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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Comments

  1. Well loved, and will be missed!