I said farewell to a friend this week.
I call him “friend” even though I never met him.
(To be honest, I didn’t know what he looked like before yesterday. I had never bothered to search Google for his face.)
But I knew him well by his words, by his art, by his imagination.
And by his name, which was on the cover of many of my favorite books.
Like me, many know him better as the man behind Clifford the Big Red Dog.
The Associated Press reported Bridwell died Dec. 12 at age 86. He created the iconic oversized, floppy-eared, bright red dog in 1963 with a book simply titled “Clifford, the Big Red Dog.”
(The New York Times reported Clifford’s name originally was meant to be Tiny; thankfully Bridwell’s wife encouraged her husband to name the dog Clifford, after one of her childhood imaginary friends.)
Bridwell wrote and illustrated more than 40 Clifford books that sold more than 120 million copies worldwide. Clifford became an icon in other media as well, including cartoons, a feature film, a musical, stuffed animals, key chains, posters and stickers.
I befriended Clifford at a young age. The school library was full of book-bound characters whom I learned to know and love: Clifford, Arthur, Amelia Bedelia, the Berenstain Bears.
Of each series, I had my favorite. There was always that one book I would check out over and over again.
With Clifford, it was “Clifford Takes a Trip,” its cover showing Clifford lying atop a city bus, much to passengers’ dismay.
(I confess, I judged a book by its cover. That was my favorite Clifford book cover as a kid.)
“Clifford Takes a Trip” also is the book that first featured an illustration of Clifford’s owner, Emily Elizabeth, sadly hugging him goodbye before the family left for a vacation.
That same illustration has made its rounds on social media this week, stamped with the words, “We’ll miss you, Norman” and shared on the official Facebook page for Clifford the Big Red Dog.
The page featuring that illustration broke my child heart with each reread.
Emily Elizabeth narrates the scene: “Last year was different. Last year we went to the mountains. Mommy and Daddy said it was too far for Clifford to walk.”
On the next page is Clifford, lying with chin on paws: “So we left him with the lady next door.”
And then the next page, Clifford’s nose in the air, howling at the moon with drooping sad eyes: “That night Clifford was so lonely he began to howl. He howled and he howled and he howled.”
I was saddened every time.
And I was saddened one more time when the illustration landed in my Facebook feed with the news of Bridwell’s death.
Thank you for making childhood a little brighter. (Bright red, in fact.)
Thank you for telling stories that teach us about friendship, compassion and kindness.
Most of all, thank you for making my imagination as big as Clifford.
[Editor’s note: This column also was published in The Times newspaper (Ottawa/Streator, Ill.) on Dec. 22, 2014.]