Clifford The Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell

Clifford The Big Red Dog is a picture book series by Norman Bridwell. This is an enormous franchise of children’s books which covers every generic, American childhood event you could imagine: Clifford’s First Christmas, The Big Sleepover, Clifford’s First School Day and so on. Bridwell died fairly recently, in 2014 at the age of 86.

“It’s hard having kids because it’s boring”, begins Louis C.K. (something explored in detail by Naomi Wolf in her book on birth and parenting, Mythconceptions).

“They all tell the exact same story. Look how big this dog is. … Here’s how big he is at the firehouse. Here’s how big he is at Thanksgiving. Who gives a shit? You just DREW him big! You on purpose drew him bigger than people. It should be ‘look how big I drew the dog in this book. Isn’t that a mistake.’ There’s no story! You maybe drew him closer to the page — I don’t even know if you did it honestly. Tell a STORY about Clifford! Make something happen, like maybe he steps on a policeman and shatters his spine and it’s devastating to the community. He hangs on for two months and then dies. And there’s a funeral with bagpipes and everybody’s crying and Clifford gets the death penalty. He found Jesus but everyone said it was bullshit. The cops wife was like, ‘I want that dog dead!’. Then he goes to the chair and they shave all his red fur off and now he’s Clifford The Big Pink Dog.”


When Louis C.K. says that the books have ‘no story’ he is of course making a joke about how the quiet, domestic nature of children’s stories seem like nothing in comparison to the kind of adult genre novel he later suggests as a Clifford the Dog plot — something from genre fiction, involving crime, murder, courthouse drama, with gritty, adult themes about retribution. Of course the Clifford books do conform to the rules of complete story structure. That’s why they’re so popular.

We have a few Clifford books on our bookshelf because my daughter is a fan.

CLIFFORD’S FIRST DAY AT SCHOOL is a flashback story. In some of the Clifford plots the dog’s size actually prevents him from doing things, so Bridwell created ‘Clifford as small puppy’ stories to allow him to, in this instance, go inside a classroom. He had a great time in the classroom, walking through paint and having a carnivalesque adventure, with the sane and calm teacher providing the counterpoint ‘straight guy’ humour, and also bringing an end to the story itself by telling Emily Elizabeth to take him home for some proper lunch. There is no self-revelation and the fun equals the battle. This makes it seem, at first glance, as if there is ‘no story’.

CLIFFORD’S FIRST CHRISTMAS is another flashback ‘Clifford’s first’ story. Clifford gets stuck at the top of the Christmas tree and has to be rescued by ‘daddy’ (because as in the Grimm versions of fairytales, characters are best rescued by men). Next he is knocked over by a bauble. This is basically mythic structure without leaving the house — Clifford is encountering a series of ‘opponents’ along the journey. Next he gets tangled in curling ribbon. Christmas Day itself turns into another carnivalesque adventure owing to Emily Elizabeth and Clifford playing with her toys.

THE BIG SLEEP OVER has an introduction by a woman with a Ph.D telling parents what the moral of the story is. (Hint: It’s about separation anxiety, but you knew that from the title, didn’t you?) This strange introduction is perhaps in response to parents, parodied by Louis C.K., who think that these Big Red Dog books have no story, boring incidents and are basically trash. This one was written after the series had already been acquired by PBS and was no longer written by Norman Bridwell himself. Now it’s by Larry Swerdlove, who wrote the TV script. It is immediately different, launching straight into dialogue, including a black boy, and (not very good) rhyming verse. This story keeps Clifford at his adult size, making use of that common children’s writers’ trick of oversize. In the world of children’s stories we have a lot of oversized food, we have oversized teddy bears, and other interesting tinkering with scale. While this story begins with a carnivalesque day, the night involves a howling Clifford whose loneliness must be problem-solved by the surrounding adults who can’t sleep. Charley’s father takes him for a ride in his pick-up truck, then the townspeople sleep next to him to keep him company. “Work together… That’s the message for kids in THE BIG SLEEP OVER!” it says on the back cover, though I imagine the message for kids is: If you can’t sleep, make noise until mum or dad lie down next to you, which is fine in co-sleeping cultures.

Children’s Literature: How scary is TOO scary?

Writing scary tales for children is difficult, because it has to be interesting without being too scary. How is it done? Where’s the line? What have storytelling experts said on the subject?

I’ve always believed that children, even at a very young age, know their limits, and if a story is too frightening and overwhelms them in some way, they will either fall asleep or walk away.  If you read to your child on a regular basis, it’s easy to navigate this terrain with conversations about each story that help you instinctively calibrate what is appropriate for bedtime reading.  Reading fairy tales may expose children to the dark side, but it also introduces them to survival skills, teaching them to use their heads to outsmart predators.  Shoving the witch into the oven may be a bridge too far, but no reason to be reverent about the words on the page, especially for the younger crowd.

Maria Tatar

People say, ‘Your book keeps giving me chills,’ but I don’t know what that feeling is. Horror always makes me laugh. Normal adult things scare me, but not things from a book or a movie.

– R.L. Stine, from an interview with Village Voice

“There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.”

– R.L. Stine from an interview with mediabistro


What’s the difference between a monster movie and a dark fairy tale?

It’s a very, very, very thin difference. I think that horror stories come from fairy tales, in a way. They share a lot of similarities. I think the difference is tonal. You know, the fairy tale contains a lot more elements of magic and whimsy and the the horror story contains a lot more, sort of, almost existential feelings — sort of dread, and ultimately they are similar melodies, played at a very different key.

– Guillermo del Toro

Over time, supernatural and horror fiction that has been targeted to children and young adults has become darker. If we look at books from the early 20th century through to the 1950s or 60s, we see books similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in their mild handling of frightening characters and scenarios. As we move into the 1970s we start to find horror novels targeted towards young adults. Stephen King’s works Salem’s Lot and Firestarter won the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults award in 1978 and 1981 respectively, showing that children and young adults have been quite willing to read scary literature for some time. Neil Gaiman’s books Coraline and The Graveyard Book are also targeted for the tween audience, and could easily be considered scarier than even these specifically labelled horror books from authors such as King and Dean Koontz. In recent years, it appears clear that more and scarier books are being targeted to the child and young adult audience, and as a result, children are reading scarier books than in the past.

Thomas Pynchon

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