Among the green-trimmed houses on High street in Edgartown, Norman Bridwell’s home sticks out. The shutters and doors are bright red. And in the window hangs a paper-sized illustration of a familiar dog — a big, red dog to be exact.
“Red has been good to me,” said Mr. Bridwell (84) at his home last week.
Fifty years ago Mr. Bridwell drew a picture of a little girl taking cover from a rainstorm under the chin of her larger-than-life bloodhound. Mr. Bridwell smeared the grass green, the little girl’s dress lavender and her hair blonde.
“When it came to the dog, I had a jar of bright, blazing red paint on my desk,” said Mr. Bridwell. “I thought, well, I got this big dog, why make him black, brown or white? I’ll make him fire engine red.”
That turned out to be a good idea.
On Monday Mr. Bridwell celebrated Clifford the Big Red Dog’s 50th birthday in New York city in front of the Scholastic headquarters. During the past half-century, Mr. Bridwell has written 90 books about Clifford that have been translated into 13 different languages.
Captured on a live stream reaching more than 5,000 classrooms across the country, 200 school children dressed in red and wearing floppy dog ears on their heads gathered on Broadway as Mr. Bridwell answered their questions, such as, “Why does Clifford always get in trouble?”
Mr. Bridwell chuckled and responded. “He gets in trouble because he’s trying to do things other dogs are doing. He means well, but sometimes things don’t go as planned. But he’s always forgiven.”
Clifford is not the only one known for getting in trouble.
Back in his Edgartown home a few days before heading to New York for the celebration, Mr. Bridwell spent the afternoon responding to fan mail, as his wife, Norma Bridwell, set out tea and cookies.
“Norman always had a funny comment about everything,” said Mrs. Bridwell. “And unfortunately that went all through school and it did not go very well with the teachers.”
Mr. Bridwell smiled. “I have to admit. My little wisecracks were not appreciated.”
He remembers even his college friends telling him “Oh, you’re just a young clown.”
“But it worked,” he said. “Clowning paid off.”
As a young boy growing up in the quiet town of Kokomo, Indiana, Mr. Bridwell would entertain himself on the walks to and from school by imagining adventurous characters and then in the evening drawing them on scrap paper.
“But I never thought about writing a book,” he said. “Any efforts to write on my part were discouraged by my high school teachers.”
He added, “I was no good at carpentry or fixing cars. Drawing was the only thing I could do. And even that wasn’t too good. If I’d been a better artist I might not have ever written the book.”
After art school and a few other odd jobs, Mr. Bridwell illustrated for a company in New York city that made film strips and slides. His job was to inject humor into the dry, dull strips.
Work slowed, and it was his wife Norma who suggested he try to illustrate a children’s book.
With a handful of samples, including the painting of the big red dog, he tried 12 different publishers.
“I was rejected at every place,” he said. “One woman said to me, ‘You know, you’re not very good. Your artwork is not beautiful or different. If you ever want to illustrate a book, you’re going to have to write one of your own.’”
Within three days he made up a story of what it would be like to have a big red dog. Norma bound his pencil drawings into a little book, and the book then moved quickly from their house, to a publisher’s desk, to the Scholastic office.
In September of 1962, Clifford the Big Red Dog was published.
“I got the phone call and was absolutely stunned,” he said.
In fact, he still seems a bit stunned.
“I was very fortunate to have one book published, I didn’t count on anymore,” said Mr. Bridwell. “I got to see a lot of stuff I never thought I’d see, all because of Clifford.”
Among the thousands of pieces of fan mail, he has even made some long-standing pen pals.
“I had one letter from a little boy. There was something about it. His spelling wasn’t perfect, his writing wasn’t very good. But his thoughts were kind of different. So I wrote back to him.” “Then I got a letter from his mother saying ‘You don’t know what you’ve done for my son. He’s always been kind of the butt of the jokes at school and kind of shy. He got your letter and showed it to the kids at school. It gave him a boost of morale. He’s changed, and more outgoing now.’”
The two still write to each other, Mr. Bridwell said.
Mr. Bridwell also travels to classrooms all over the world to read to children and draw for them, sharing his humor and humility.
“I would encourage the children to be creative. You never knew who you were talking to, who is out there. Some budding author or artist who might be a little discouraged as I was when I was in school.
“I never thought about teaching anything. But people see something in Clifford, just in his personality, of being helpful, making mistakes and being forgiven. They see things there that I didn’t dream were there. They are just part of the story to me.”