Norman Bridwell dies at 86; creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog

Norman Bridwell, writer and illustrator who created books about Clifford the Big Red Dog, dies at 86

Norman Bridwell, a soft-spoken illustrator whose impromptu story about a girl and her puppy marked the unlikely birth of the supersized franchise Clifford the Big Red Dog, has died. He was 86.

Bridwell, who lived for decades on Martha's Vineyard off Cape Cod in Massachusetts, died Friday at Martha's Vineyard Hospital, where he had been for about three weeks after a fall at home in Edgartown, said his wife, Norma. He had several ailments, including a recurrence of prostate cancer.

Starting in 1963 with "Clifford the Big Red Dog," Bridwell wrote and illustrated more than 40 Clifford books, including "Clifford and the Grouchy Neighbors" and "Clifford Goes to Hollywood." More than 120 million copies have sold worldwide, along with cartoons, a feature film, a musical, stuffed animals, key chains, posters and stickers. Images of Clifford have appeared in museums and the White House.

"A lot of people were Clifford fans and that makes them Norman fans, too," said his wife of 56 years.

Spinoffs include cartoons with John Ritter as the voice of Clifford and future "Hunger Games" novelist Suzanne Collins among the script writers.

Scholastic Inc. became a top children's publisher thanks in part to Clifford. It had been in business for decades before Clifford, but the series' success inspired the publisher to look for other stories with brand appeal, including "Goosebumps," "The Magic School Bus" and "I Spy."

Bridwell had completed two more Clifford books to be released next year, Scholastic said in a statement.

In his pre-Clifford life, Bridwell was a filmstrip and slide illustrator, trying to break into children's publishing to support his family. His work had been rejected all over New York when an editor at Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) suggested he try writing a story to go with a picture he had submitted of a child and her horse-sized dog. Bridwell's idea: Thanks to the girl's affection, a puppy — the runt of the litter — grows into a klutzy but good-hearted behemoth, as big as the lighthouses on the author's imaginary Birdwell Island. A nearby paint container inspired Bridwell to color Clifford fire engine red.

Bridwell had sketched a bloodhound because he wanted one while growing up and he named the girl Emily Elizabeth, after his daughter. He planned to call the dog "Tiny," but his wife, Norma, suggested "Clifford," the name of an imaginary friend she had as a child. Bridwell spent a weekend working up a story. Several publishers turned the book down before editor Beatrice de Regniers of Scholastic's "Lucky Book Club" saw Clifford's potential.

"I said to my wife, 'Now don't count on there being any more. This one is just a fluke. I don't know if there will ever be another one,"' Bridwell told the Associated Press in 2012.

Bridwell achieved mainstream success without mainstream distribution. Scholastic offered the first Clifford story through book clubs and school fairs (Clifford wasn't available in stores until the 1980s) and it sold well enough that Scholastic published a second, non-Clifford book by Bridwell, "The Witch Next Door." Over the years, Bridwell added such "Clifford" sidekicks as the purple poodle Cleo, the three-legged training dog KC and Emily Elizabeth's cranky schoolmate, Jetta.

Bridwell was born in Kokomo, Ind., in 1928. He attended the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, then moved to New York and studied at Cooper Union. Bridwell spent much of the 1950s as a commercial artist.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Bridwell is survived by a son, Timothy, and three grandchildren.

Italie writes for the Associated Press.

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