Kids books: How 'Clifford, the Big Red Dog' started
Norman Bridwell, the creator of "Clifford, the Big Red Dog," shares how the books and TV series about the lovable, giant dog and his pal Emily Elizabeth got started.
Scripps Howard News Service
It was 1963, and Norman Bridwell, the father of an infant daughter, was broke and desperately searching for work as a commercial artist in New York City.
Figuring he had to try everything, Bridwell put together a portfolio of illustrations and began to make the rounds of children's publishers. He didn't have any luck, but an editor at Harper & Row looked closely at one sample, which showed a little girl with a huge red dog, and suggested that "there might be a story in this," Bridwell recounted in a recent interview.
Bridwell headed home and three days later, he had created the story and illustrations for "Clifford, the Big Red Dog." He dropped it off at Harper & Row, where luck intervened in the form of a woman whose job it was to read unsolicited manuscripts, otherwise known as "the slush pile." Knowing that Harper & Row wouldn't be interested in Bridwell's manuscript, the woman "put it in her purse without telling anyone" and took it to Scholastic, Bridwell said.
Three weeks, later, an editor from Scholastic called and said the firm would like to publish Bridwell's book about the clumsy but lovable dog and his owner, the spunky Emily Elizabeth. It turned out to be a momentous decision; today there are more than 126 million "Clifford" books in print in 13 languages, and a PBS show starring the big red dog is now in its ninth season.
Clifford's latest adventure is titled "Clifford the Champion" (Cartwheel/Scholastic, $15.99). In this book, Emily Elizabeth enters her canine companion in "America's Super Dog" contest. While Clifford's size causes him problems during the contest, he finds that there are other ways to be a winner.
In a recent telephone interview from his Martha's Vineyard home, Bridwell, 81, said he attributes much of his success to luck.
"I was just trying to find work," he said. "I'd been out of work and had a brand new baby daughter who wasn't sleeping through the night and my mother was visiting from Indiana. It was a very tense time.... I'm so lucky. If that woman hadn't come in that day (to look at the slush pile), things would have been very different."
After Bridwell sold the first "Clifford" manuscript, his wife Norma suggested he try to create more stories about the dog and Emily Elizabeth, who was named after their daughter.
"I told her, 'Don't count on it. This one is just a fluke. I don't know if there will ever be another one,' " Bridwell said.
Fortunately, Bridwell had plenty of stories to tell about Clifford and Emily Elizabeth and, in 1970, he was making enough money from the series and other children's books that he was able to give up his other commercial artwork. While Bridwell's books about "Clifford" have never been embraced by critics, millions of young readers love Bridwell's cheerful stories and simple artwork.
People often ask Bridwell how he came up with the idea of an enormous red dog like Clifford.
"I just thought it seemed like a good idea for a child to own a dog like this,"he said. "I always liked dogs, and had three or four of them as a kid."
Asked why kids love Clifford so much, Bridwell replied: "He makes mistakes, he's clumsy, he's not perfect. But he's always forgiven because he means well." Also, Clifford's amazing size means that ordinary events, such as a camping trip or visit to the circus, become real adventures. As Bridwell puts it: "Because Clifford is so big and also because he's a dog, he's able to do the most unbelievable and imaginative things."
Bridwell says he's "always been amazed"at the letters he gets from teacher who tell him how they use his "Clifford "books in their classrooms.
"They base all kinds of lessons on the books, and they find messages in the books that I didn't even know where there," said Bridwell, who currently is working on a series of easy readers starring Clifford. "Once, I asked an editor if I should be putting messages in my books, and she said, 'No, you're an entertainer. Kids have fun reading your books and if they find a message, that's fine.' "
While Bridwell has found great success with the "Clifford" books, as well as another series called "The Witch Next Door," he's also had numerous manuscripts rejected.
"I've had 60 books published, and another 120 turned down," he said.
As a result, when aspiring children's book authors and illustrators ask Bridwell for his advice in getting started in the field, he tells them: "Write about what makes you feel good. And don't get discouraged if you get rejected."
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.