Transcript of an interview with Norman Bridwell

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Norman Bridwell. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Norman Bridwell

How Clifford began

Clifford began as an art sample, not any thought of it being a book. I was looking for work as an illustrator, and I'd made some sample paintings to show to publishers. And one of the paintings I did was of a little girl with a great, big, red dog. And I took these samples around, and I showed them to a lot of people, and I got rejected everyplace I went. Nobody liked the art.

One lady at one of the publishing houses said, "Well, you're not very good. Nobody would ever want you to illustrate a book." She said, "Why don't you try writing a story?" And she said, "Maybe this is a story here," and she pointed to the picture of the little girl with the big red dog.

I went home, and I took the dog and the girl. I made the dog bigger. He was about horse-size in the painting, and I made him house-size. And I was going to call him "Tiny." I thought that would be a funny idea. And my wife thought it was a dumb idea. She told me it was a stupid name for a giant dog, so she named the dog "Clifford" after an imaginary playmate from her childhood. So, that's how he got his name.

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A fur-covered dinosaur?

How do I describe Clifford? A friend of mine said that I've got a fur-covered dinosaur. She may be right about that. He's big. He's gentle. He's always trying to be helpful. He's a lovable dog and well-meaning, but clumsy. And I think children appreciate this, because children sometimes try to do things, and they don't mean any harm, but things just go wrong, and things wind up badly. And I think that's what appeals to them about Clifford – that he's in the same "field" as they are.

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Teachers find the lessons

I get a lot of mail from teachers, saying that they find Clifford very useful in teaching things to children. This is all unintentional on my part. I'm not a teacher. I'm an entertainer. I write books that are fun, I hope, for children to read. But teachers see ways to teach values, to teach manners, to teach things to children. I admire them for finding this in the books but, believe me, it's not my doing. It's what the teachers see…

If there's one message that winds up in most of the books, it's to try. And if things go wrong, don't give up. Go back and try again. Clifford does that all the time. He's constantly making mistakes, or knocking things over, but it doesn't keep him from trying.

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Pencil, pen, and paint

When I sit down to do a book, I usually get the idea in my mind as to the general plot. And then I start thinking what can happen, and I go through, and I do the drawings first. I do very quick, very rough pencil drawings that are just to show to the editor. And I do them very quickly. They're tight enough that she can tell what's happening on this page, this page. And I put them in a little book, a dummy, and I send it to the editor.

And if she approves of it, she will return it to me. And I take those very rough pencil drawings, and I slip them under a sheet of white drawing paper that I can see through, and I take a black ballpoint pen, and I do a very careful ink drawing. I change things as I'm going along. I'll shift things around, or make his head rounder, or his paws bigger. And I do an ink drawing for every page of the book. This takes about ten days for me to do the black drawings.

Then these drawings are photographed and copied in blue line on watercolor paper, and another artist does the color of the books. I give him a tissue paper overlay with colored pencil indications of what I'd like the colors to be, and then he goes ahead and does anything he wants. No, he's got a good sense of color. He will follow my indications pretty closely.

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A big red dog that moves

When I found out that they were going to do an animated Clifford show and it was going to be on PBS, I was really delighted, because I knew it would be a quality product if PBS was going to show it.

They tried some years ago. Somebody was interested in doing a Clifford show for the networks, and the networks wanted gangs of boys. They wanted conflict. They wanted evil villains. And that's just not Clifford. Clifford is a more gentle, nurturing character. And I think PBS is the right spot for him…

I've watched my granddaughter, who is six years old, when she's watching the Clifford show, and she's absolutely glued to the set. She loves it, and it takes a lot to calm her down. She's a very active, little girl, and she's usually on the move. But during Clifford, she sits.

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The real Emily Elizabeth

I named the narrator of the books, the little girl that owns Clifford, I named her Emily Elizabeth, because that was my daughter's name. I certainly didn't dream that she would be going on in book after book after book.

My daughter has sort of always just accepted this. It was no big thing to her, until she was grown up and she went to get a library card, and one of the librarians said, "Are you the girl in the books?"

And my daughter said, "Well, what do you mean?" And she said, "Are you the real Emily Elizabeth?" It never really sank in that she was known all over the country.

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"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser