Clifford the Big Red Dog at the Smithsonian
When Scholastic first published Clifford the Big Red Dog in 1963, the book's creator, Norman Bridwell (1928–2014), had no idea his humongous—and huggable—red hound would capture the hearts of children and grow to become a worldwide symbol of children's literacy. Following Bridwell's death, his family generously donated over 90 objects related to Clifford to the Division of Home and Community Life's Education Collection, which chronicles the history of education in the United States from the colonial era to the present day. These materials capture changes that began in the 1960s in how to engage and teach children to read, both inside and outside the classroom.
Clifford the Big Red Dog was the manifestation of Bridwell's childhood desire for a dog the size of a horse. Bridwell was a struggling commercial artist in New York City, and he hoped to expand his career by making illustrations for children's books. After presenting his portfolio to over a dozen publishers in 1962, he followed the advice of Susan Hirschman, an editor at Harper & Row, who suggested that he write a story to go along with his illustrations. He then, over the course of a weekend, turned his drawing of a little girl and a large red dog into a complete children's book. Clifford the Big Red Dog was published soon after its submission to Scholastic and became a phenomenal success. It is now one of the most popular books for children who are learning to read, making Clifford an internationally beloved character among preschoolers and parents.
Clifford the Big Red Dog became a prominent series around the time that other children's books, such as Dick and Jane, were beginning to be phased out by teachers in classrooms. Children's books at the time repeated a small set of vocabulary words over and over. But by the 1960s, education professionals were beginning to think this strategy was too simple. These kinds of books were replaced with others that told stories with colorful illustrations. Clifford represented this transition, as well as other beginner readers such as The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss and the Little Golden Book series. The title character faced real-life situations that children are able to relate to their own lives—such as attending school, learning manners, and going to the doctor—while the books taught readers to recognize words associated with the letters of the alphabet. The bright colors and playful illustrations also helped draw attention to Clifford and make him a lovable character.
Bridwell wanted to entertain children with his stories about Clifford, but the books also teach an underlying moral lesson. Clifford makes mistakes, and yet he is able to grow and learn from them. Clifford faces the challenges of growing up for his young readers. He sets an example for children about how to understand the world and face challenges with kindness and understanding. He also demonstrates how to have a sense of humor and be loyal to friends and family.
Clifford has become the symbol of early childhood education for Scholastic and a beloved figure for children. Scholastic President and CEO Dick Robinson said, "Norman Bridwell's books about Clifford, childhood's most loveable dog, could only have been written by a gentle man with a great sense of humor. Norman personified the values that we as parents and educators hope to communicate to our children—kindness, compassion, helpfulness, gratitude."
So thank you, Norman, for reminding us through Clifford that we all make mistakes, and we come out better because of them.
Amy McKinney completed an internship in the Division of Home and Community Life under Associate Curator Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina studying history and anthropology. She wishes you a happy Children's Book Week!