About Big Red Dogs and Acceptance: Goodbye, Norman Bridwell

Clifford cryingNorman Bridwell died earlier this week. To most people, that sentence won’t mean much. For some, however, it’s the end of an era, because Norman Bridwell was the creator of Clifford, the Big Red Dog – a children’s book about a little girl named Emily Elizabeth and her puppy, Clifford. As a boy, Bridwell dreamed of a dog large enough for his owner to ride, and he made his dreams come true on thousands of pages devoured by small children and their parents. Clifford may have started out small but he ended up as a huge metaphor for how children often feel in real life – affectionate, clumsy, awkward, eager to please and ultimately loved and forgiven.

First drawn in 1962 and published in 1963, and originally only available through the Scholastic book club and book fair market, Clifford was a universal figure of affection for young children. They could relate to the dog who belonged to a loving family, but who sometimes didn’t fit in, and who got into trouble but always with a good heart. Clifford often made mistakes; he dug up the flowers, or made a mess, or didn’t listen to Emily Elizabeth. However, at the end of the day, he always tried his best and he was always loved by his family. This kind of reassurance is necessary for small children, who need to know that they can make mistakes and be forgiven for them.

clifford childrens

Clifford visits the Children’s Festival in Creemore in 2013.

I have fond memories of Clifford – it was, in fact one of the first books that I remember purchasing from those newspaper flyers sent out by the Scholastic Book Club in school. My nieces have read my copies, and I’ve even sent new versions to friends in England and Australia. I have memories of laying on blankets at cottages, listening to my friends’ children read Clifford aloud, and hearing them giggle at all his misadventures. There’s something so universal about him – even kids who don’t have pets could relate and loved his stories best. I’ve hosted Clifford in my library and in the bookstore on numerous occasions, and it still amazes me to see how readily children will run up to Clifford for a hug (adults too!). Kids who won’t look an adult in the eye will lose all fear when Clifford is around, and won’t let go until he hugs them back. There’s something so enduring about him, and he transcends generations.

For me, Clifford was a story about acceptance. The big red dog taught us that not everyone is the same, that we all make mistakes, that it’s okay to be different and that we love each other for who we are, not what we are. Clifford had friends – both human and dog – who were unlike him in every way, but they all made the effort to get along. His books taught us about being kind to one another, about having fun, and about accepting each other – something kids are so wonderful at doing, but that adults often struggle to do.

Dick Robinson, Chairman, President and CEO of Scholastic, had this to say about Bridwell’s passing: “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 fifty years.”

Goodbye, Mr. Bridwell, and thank you.

Ten things you may not have known about Clifford and his creator:

* Emily Elizabeth is the name of Norman Bridwell’s daughter. He also had a son and three grandchildren.

* Clifford was originally a bloodhound called Tiny, but his wife suggested changing the name to Clifford after her childhood imaginary friend.

* Clifford turned out to be red because that was the colour of the paint jar on his desk when Bridwell first created Clifford.

* Norman Bridwell was an unemployed commercial artist when he wrote and illustrated the first Clifford book.

* There are over 150 Clifford titles –  the series has been translated into 13 languages, and has sold over 129 million copies.

* There are two more Clifford books coming out in 2015 –  Clifford Goes to Kindergarten and Clifford Celebrates Hannukah.

* His books were some of the first to provide social commentary in picture books, demonstrating diversity in both Clifford’s and Emily Elizabeth’s friends and neighbours.

* The original Clifford book was rejected by publishers nine times before being picked up by Scholastic, and every Clifford book since has come from them.

* Images of Clifford have appeared in museums and even at the White House. The Scholastic head office in New York is filled with Clifford red – even the chairs of the auditorium are red.

* Locals in Martha’s Vineyard could always point out the Bridwell’s house because of its distinctive bright red door.

In 2012, Clifford celebrated 50 years. To celebrate, Scholastic created a video that includes an interview with Bridwell. He will be missed by thousands of children and their parents and teachers, but his stories remain.