Clifford the Big Red Dog Turns 50

Norman Bridwell and Clifford

Norman Bridwell with his best friend and muse, Clifford. / Photo by AP Images

Though I turn 41 on the day I interview Norman Bridwell, I’m as nervous as a schoolkid. After all, Bridwell is the creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog, one of the best-loved children’s book characters.

I’ve adored the Clifford series since discovering it in my elementary school library, and recently had the pleasure of introducing the crimson canine to my toddler. When she saw The Clifford Collection (out 9/1, Scholastic, $13), a new volume containing six of the classic books as well as an essay by Bridwell, she began to giggle, just like I had decades before.

I ask Bridwell, who has lived on the Vineyard for 45 years, the secret behind Clifford’s irresistibility. “I don’t really understand what made it work,” he replies. In fact, Clifford may be one of the greatest flukes in children’s publishing. In the early 1960s, Bridwell was an unemployed commercial artist in New York shopping his skills door to door when an editor showed interest in his painting of a little girl and her enormous pup—based on Bridwell’s childhood longing for a dog he could ride.

The editor suggested he write a story, and Bridwell took three days to pen a tale about a girl he named Emily Elizabeth (after his infant daughter) and her dog, Tiny. Bridwell’s wife, Norma, objected to the canine’s handle, proposing Clifford (for an imaginary friend she had as a girl) instead. “I never thought the book would see the light of day,” Bridwell says, “so it didn’t matter to me.”

Fifty years and 126 million Clifford books in print later, Bridwell, 84, is still creating new adventures for the iconic character. “He just kind of drags me along,” he says. “I don’t have a lot to do with it.” The one thing Bridwell insists on is that Clifford’s location be vague—he could live anywhere, he says, even right down the street from my little girl.