Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Late Great Norman Bridwell, Creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog

Norman Bridwell, the writer and cartoonist best known for creating Clifford the Big Red Dog, died 12 December 2014 at the age of 86.

Norman Bridwell was born on 15 February 1928 in Kokomo, Indiana. After graduating Kokomo High School in 1945 he attended the  John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis and Cooper Union in New York City.  He struggled for years as a commercial artist before his first "Clifford the Big Red Dog" book, Clifford the Big Red Dog, was published in 1963. His second book, Zany Zoo, was published that same year. Clifford proved to be extremely popular, so it was followed by Clifford Gets a Job in 1965 as well as by Clifford's Halloween and Clifford Takes a Trip in 1966. In the end there would be over 150 titles with 120 million copies sold worldwide. Two more "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books, Clifford Goes to Kindergarten and Clifford Celebrates Hanukkah, are due to be published next year.

With his success,  Clifford would also eventually venture into other media. In 1988 there began a series of direct to video releases entitled Clifford's Fun with... From 2000 to 2003 Scholastic Studios produced the animated series Clifford the Big Red Dog for PBS. John Ritter provided the voice of Clifford. John Ritter also provided the voice of Clifford in Clifford's Really Big Movie (2004).  Both were followed by the animated series Clifford's Puppy Days. In 1990 a giant balloon of Clifford the Big Red Dog made its debut in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Norman Bridwell also wrote other books besides the "Clifford Big Red Dog" books. The Witch Next Door, about a kindly witch, was published in 1965 and was followed by such books as The Witch's Vacation and Witch's Catalog. Norman Bridwell also wrote a number of books centred around humorous monsters, including How to Care for Your Monster, Monster Holidays, and Monster Jokes and Riddles. He also wrote a number of other children's books, including Bird in the Hat, Kangaroo Stew, A Tiny Family, and many others.

Norman Bridwell was one of the most influential children's authors of the 20th Century. As with many popular authors it is often hard to determine precisely why he was so successful. I think much of it may have been because in nearly all of his books, from the "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books to the "Witch" books to the "Monster" books, there was an underlying message that it was all right to be different. Clifford the Big Red Dog is unlike any dog in the world and yet Emily Elizabeth loves him all the same. For children who might feel like outsiders the message that being different is not only acceptable, but admirable is an important one.

Beyond the message in Norman Bridwell's books that being different is all right, there is also an underlying message that it is important to try to be good, even when things might be going awry. In the "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books Clifford always tries to be good, even as his huge size sometimes creates problems. Even as Clifford makes mistakes, Emily Elizabeth still loves him all the same. And in the end Clifford always finds a way to make things right. This is another important message for children, that one should always try to be good and it is all right to make mistakes. There can be no doubt that many children identified with Clifford more than they did Emily Elizabeth.

Norman Bridwell's "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books would become among the most successful in the history of children's books. They certainly struck a chord with younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers, who have passed their love of the books onto their children. While Norman Bridwell may no longer be in this world, there can be no doubt that Clifford the Big Red Dog will be with us for a long time to come.

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