By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
Norman Bridwell once thought it would be fun to have a dog as big as a horse that he could ride around his house.
The Kokomo native remembered that silly childhood idea in 1962 when he sat down to craft a sample painting he would show to publishing companies in New York.
The then-34-year-old picked up a paint brush and reached for the fire engine red paint that sat on his desk.
By the time he put down the brush, Bridwell had created a picture of a larger-than-life, red bloodhound and the smiling, red-headed girl who loved her giant pet.
He didn’t know it at the time, but that painting would become the first image of Clifford the Big Red Dog – a storybook character beloved by children across the world, even today.
On Feb. 13, the Kokomo-Howard County Public library will host the first of three parties to honor the iconic character’s 50th birthday. The bash will be complete with crafts, cakes and games.
Bridwell never thought Clifford would still be popular 50 years after his creation.
“If I would have known he would last 50 years, I would have written him when I was 20 instead of when I was 34,” Bridwell said with a laugh.
The 84-year-old said he has some trouble getting around these days. It was difficult for him to even make it from his home in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to a recent ceremony in New York honoring Clifford’s milestone.
He made the trek anyway because the stories he created are important to him, he said.
That Clifford was published at all was a “happy accident,” the author said.
In 1962, he and his wife were commercial artists in New York City, but they hadn’t had any work in nearly two months.
They needed money, so his wife suggested he try his hand at illustrating children’s books.
He hatched a plan to wow publishers with about a dozen sample paintings he had created. Among them was the piece with the big, red dog.
Bridwell showed his collection to several publishers one day, hoping one of them needed a new illustrator.
“I was rejected every place,” he said. “One [editor] told me, ‘you’re not a very good artist. No one is going to buy your paintings.’”
Bridwell said he wasn’t exactly surprised by her reaction.
The author said he was never considered very good at drawing. In school, there was always someone better than he.
The editor who criticized Bridwell’s work that day, though, had a piece of advice for him.
She told him he should try to create a story to go along with one of his paintings, and then try to sell it. She pointed to the picture with the dog and said that was the one.
Bridwell said he was so excited, he wrote the first Clifford story in three days.
But the dog’s name wasn’t Clifford then. He called the lovable canine “Tiny”.
“My wife said that was a stupid idea,” Bridwell said, chuckling.
She renamed the dog Clifford after an imaginary friend she once had.
And so a star was born.
Scholastic published the first book in 1963.
Since then, Bridwell estimates he’s written more than 50 books, though he lost count long ago.
His books have been translated into more than 13 languages. The stories even became a springboard for a PBS Kids television show and a musical.
It’s still the kids who read his stories that matter most to Bridwell.
Over the years, he has received letters from children all over the world. They came from as far away as Siberia.
Bridwell prided himself on responding to every letter he ever received.
“If a child cares enough to write me, they deserve a reply,” he said.
He once got a letter from a mother who said her son had gained confidence in school because of Bridwell.
The author had responded to one of the boy’s letters, and the kid took it to school and showed his classmates. They were impressed with him.
Bridwell dedicated one of his books to that child and kept in touch with him for more than 20 years. When he grew up, the kid became an Alaska park ranger. He used to write Bridwell letters while he was sitting around a campfire in a national park, the author said.
“He was a nice kid,” Bridwell said. “There was something special about him, the way he wrote.”
Bridwell once met an immigrant during a book signing in New York City. They had a conversation that really stuck with Bridwell.
The man came to America from Hong Kong. He hated his new life and wanted to return home, Bridwell said.
Then he picked up a Clifford book. He thought the illustrations were funny and wanted to know what the words below them said. So he taught himself to read using that book, Bridwell said.
The book even inspired the immigrant to pursue a love of art. He eventually opened his own design studio.
“You don’t expect to make that kind of difference,” Bridwell said.
But Bridwell knows he can’t take all the credit for his success. Luck played a role in it, too, he said.
“I’m lucky that Clifford was the kind of character that people wanted more of,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky that way. I sometimes feel like this is all a dream. How could this have happened to me?”