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'Clifford The Big Red Dog' Turns 50 (In Human Years)

Sep 22, 2012
Originally published on December 16, 2014 8:10 pm

A big dog celebrates a big birthday this year: Clifford the beloved "Big Red Dog" first appeared on the literary scene 50 years ago, along with Emily Elizabeth, the little girl who loves him.

It was 1962, and Norman Bridwell was a "struggling, not very successful artist in New York," he says. His wife, Norma, suggested that he try his hand at illustrating children's books. So Norman did 10 kid-oriented paintings and took them to publishers. He was rejected everywhere, except at one publisher, where a young woman told him he wasn't a very good illustrator, so if he wanted to illustrate a book, he'd need to write one on his own.

Bridwell recalls: "She pointed to a sample painting I'd done, of a little girl with a gigantic red dog, and she said, 'Maybe that's a story.' And I went home, and over that weekend I wrote the story Clifford the Big Red Dog and was shocked when it was accepted for publication, because I'd never written anything before."

His wife was also in shock. "I couldn't believe it at first," Norma says. "When I did realize it wasn't a dream, I said to Norman, 'You could write another book! Maybe you could write two or three books, who knows!' And his reaction was, 'Oh, no. This is just a fluke.' "

That "fluke" turned into close to 90 Clifford books that have sold more than 126 million copies in 13 languages. Clifford's animated series on PBS is seen in 65 countries around the world. In September, Clifford's publisher, Scholastic Press, reissued the original stories under the title Clifford Collection. Norman Bridwell talks with NPR's Scott Simon on the occasion of his dog's 50th birthday.


Interview Highlights

On Clifford before he was "Clifford"

"I started off calling him Tiny. And Norma said, 'Well, that's a stupid name for a dog like that.' And she went back to her childhood and took the name of an imaginary friend, Clifford, and gave it to the dog."

On keeping up the Clifford series for five decades

"It has gotten more difficult over the years. Every time I think of an idea, I think, 'Well, that's kind of like the idea that I did a couple of times before.' And I'm running out of situations."

On trying not to take advantage of Clifford's popularity

"My first editor said: 'I'm not going to take Clifford soup. You can't throw him into a plot and stir him around and expect me to buy it. It's got to be something that is interesting and entertaining for children.' "

On the advice he gives to young people who want to write a book

"I often tell young people who write ... 'It's not easy.' ... I was extremely fortunate. It's a very discouraging business sometimes, but the rewards are marvelous, especially emotionally."

On replying to all the letters that children send to him or to Clifford

"We make a real effort to answer every letter. It's sometimes difficult, but I think if they care enough to sit down and write, I should give them an answer."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. If we tell you that Clifford's turning 50, chances are you won't think of Clifford Lee, the famous Philadelphia Philly pitcher, or Clifford Chance, the big London law firm, but a big red dog - in fact, the big red dog - and Emmy Elizabeth, the little girl who loves him. Norman Bridwell wrote the first "Clifford the Big Red Dog" story 50 years ago. Since then, he has written close to 90 more "Clifford" books that have sold more than 126 million copies in 13 languages. And Clifford's animated series on PBS is seen in 65 countries around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CLIFFORD")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Wow, Clifford. Lily of the Valley picked you as Dog of the Year. But you're dog of the year every day to me.

SIMON: This month Clifford's publisher, Scholastic Press, is reissuing the original "Clifford" stories under the title "The Clifford Collection." Norman Bridwell joins us from the studios of WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Thanks so much for being with us.

NORMAN BRIDWELL: Glad to be here.

SIMON: And you are joined by Norma Bridwell, your wife.

BRIDWELL: Yes.

SIMON: Good morning, Mrs. Bridwell. How are you?

NORMA BRIDWELL: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: You both have a hand in this. How did Clifford get born?

BRIDWELL: It was 1962. I was a struggling, not-very-successful artist in New York. Norma said, well, you always wanted to illustrate children's books. Why don't you try that? I did about 10 paintings that I thought would appeal to children. and took them to publishers and was rejected everyplace except at one publisher. A young woman said, well, you're not very good. She said if you want to illustrate a book you'll probably have to write one of your own. She pointed to a sample painting I done of a little girl with a gigantic red dog and she said maybe that's a story. And I went home and over that weekend I wrote the story "Clifford the Big Red Dog" and was shocked when it was accepted for publication because I'd never written anything before.

SIMON: Norma Bridwell?

BRIDWELL: Yes.

SIMON: What did you think about all this?

BRIDWELL: I couldn't believe it at first. When I did realize it wasn't a dream, I said to Norman, you could write another book. Maybe you could write two or three books, who knows? And his reaction was oh, no. This is just a fluke.

SIMON: Clifford is bigger than a house, but once you accept that premise, he doesn't do any superhero stuff, right?

BRIDWELL: No, no. My editor was very wise to suggest he's, after all, just a dog. He doesn't have magical powers.

BRIDWELL: Call him an accident at birth or something like that.

SIMON: Now, Clifford was big because he's loved so much.

BRIDWELL: Yeah. After I did, I think, four books of the big dog, I got letters from kids asking what was he like when he was born? Was he a giant puppy? Was his mother and father big dogs? We thought it would be fun to make him - he's a very small puppy and he grew because Emily loved him.

BRIDWELL: Yes. He was the runt of the litter and the man who was giving her a dog, a puppy, said, oh, don't take him. I don't think he'll even live. He's so small. Then love came in there and, you know, did the trick.

SIMON: Is it hard to top yourself book after book with Clifford?

BRIDWELL: It has gotten more difficult over the years. Every time I think of an idea I think, well, that's kind of like the idea that I did a couple of times before. And I'm running out of situations.

SIMON: Mr. and Mrs. Bridwell, do you draw any lesson and should we perhaps draw some lesson from the fact that you endured so many rejections and now are one of the best selling authors in the world?

BRIDWELL: I often tell young people who write and say I'd like to try writing a book. I always tell them it's not easy. I said I was extremely fortunate. It's a very discouraging business sometimes. But the rewards are marvelous, especially emotionally.

SIMON: I have also read, Mr. and Mrs. Bridwell, that any kid in the world who writes you or writes Clifford a letter probably gets a reply.

BRIDWELL: We make a real effort to answer every letter. It's sometimes difficult but I think if they care enough to sit down and write, I should give them an answer.

SIMON: If Clifford grew so big because he was loved so much, after 126 million books, shouldn't he be just about as big as Brazil right now?

(LAUGHTER)

BRIDWELL: That's a nice compliment.

BRIDWELL: I think he's reached his non-threatening limit.

SIMON: Well, happy birthday to Clifford and thank you very much. Fifty years...

BRIDWELL: Thank you.

SIMON: ...of making children laugh. That's wonderful.

BRIDWELL: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Norman Bridwell and Norma Bridwell. "Clifford the Big Red Dog" is 50 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.