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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Norman Bridwell Remembered (Feb. 15, 1928-Dec. 12, 2014) RIP

Norman Bridwell
This picture is one that I used in my book 100 Most Popular Picture Book Authors and Illustrators: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies (Libraries Unlimited/ABC-CLIO, 2000).  Bridwell is featured on 53-56, and the interview for that book is most likely the last time that I spoke with him.  He would have been about 74 at that time and still as interesting as ever.
I first met him in the late 1980s when I contacted him for a contribution to the Iowa Reading Association's t-shirt project.  We asked several noted illustrators for images that we might print on t-shirts and bags; and I had one run made with quilt squares (besides Normal Bridwell, illustrators such as Tomie dePaola, Leo and Diane Dillon, Steven Kellogg, Bill Peet, Aliki, and others contributed).  This image of Clifford the Big Red Dog and Emily Elizabeth was Bridwell's contribution and a 2-year-old in 2014 is still enjoying finding "Big Dog" on his nap quilt.  In the next few years I met him in person as the reading association hosted him at their annual reading conference in April.  I was his liaison and helper during his autographing session that Saturday.  One of the most memorable exchanges was when a young twenty-ish woman brought a book to be autographed but due to time constraints she had to leave it to come back and retrieve it later.  When he got to her request the personalization request read something like:  "To my friend, Mrs. _____________, the world's best teacher and friend to all children."  He turned to me and said, "Do I have to write that?"  I didn't get it at first, and then he said, "If I write that and sign my name and she turns out to be a child predator, how does that make me look -- she's not 'my' friend."  I agreed and we had a good time laughing at the possibilities that might ensue if he had written that inscription.  After that I and he often talked/wrote.
During our conversations he recounted the women who had made his career as Clifford's creator possible.  He was trying to get an illustrative job and Susan Hirschman at Harper & Row (later Greenwillow) was very forthright and told him that she doubted if any jobs would be coming his way, for him to illustrate someone else's books.  But if he developed his own stories maybe there would be some possibilities.  She identified a sketch of a small girl and her BIG dog as a possibility.  Clifford was born.  When in the beginning  "Tiny" was born as it wasn't until his wife suggested he name the dog after his own imaginary childhood friend -- and the red, that just happened to be the color of paint he had on his desk at the moment.
A couple of Clifford books (and some other titles) were published but not to any great acclaim.  Eventually though the first Clifford book made its way to the Scholastic Book Clubs.  At the time Beatrice deRegniers was the acquisition editor there and when Clifford sold well, she asked Bridwell for more stories but with the admonishment that "I just can't take Clifford soup. Don't turn in any old story with Clifford stirred in.  It has to be a real story."  Clifford was a great success and turned into one of Scholastic's best marketing campaigns.
The Bridwells moved to Martha Vineyard where they lived in a house with Clifford red shutters, and a Clifford red door.  He drove a Clifford red car with the license plate that read "Clifrd."
(A side note: The Bridwells were next door neighbors to Don and Carol Carrick and in fact he and Norma were the Carrick's first friends on the street to introduce themselves when the Carrick's moved to Edgartown. Later they became Godparents to the Carrick's second son.  Norman and Norma felt the sorrow of the loss of their friend Don Carrick when he died in 1989; and then when Carol moved, in 2002, to a home in West Tisbury. where she lived until her death in 2013.  But I digress.  The Bridwells and the Carricks and later Carol Carrick and her friend Jack Burton enjoyed a friendship for decades and both brought many books to the world of children's books.)
Clifford debuted in 1963 and was only illustrated in black and white, with the splash of red for Clifford.  At some point Scholastic felt the illustrations should be in color so they interviewed colorists to add color to Bridwell's earlier illustrations.  Bridwell applied for the job himself... but was rejected.  So he continued to draw in black and white and others colored in his illustrations (or at least that is the way he told the story).  I never did know the truth of the story -- was he rejected, or was he just popular enough that the publisher would rather he work on new books as opposed to spending his time adding color?  Either way the books are now published with full color illustrations and have merged into movies, toys, games and many other products that bring Clifford into the lives of young readers.

My oldest grandson whose other grandmother worked at Red Lobster once told his 2nd grade teacher in Massachusetts that he had one grandmother who owned Red Lobster and another grandmother (me) who knew Clifford the Big Red Dog.  It is now my very youngest grandson who feels that his special friend is Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Clifford is an enduring character that has been beloved for decades ... and most likely will be loved for several more decades.

Norman Bridwell - RIP and thank you for your books, including my favorite How to Care for Your Monster (and the story of how that book came about is part of the entry in 100 Most Popular Picture Book Authors and Illustrators: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies).

1 comment:

  1. This is so interesting! Clifford is so well-loved and recognized. Scholastic's book fairs are always enhanced by an appearance by Clifford. My daughter & I have both enjoyed wearing the costume and finding others, including my oldest grandson, to wear it. The elementary school children always love seeing Clifford.Thank you for sharing about Mr. Bridwell and the story of Clifford!