When you arrive in Kokomo, you’re greeted by the friendly, familiar face of Clifford the Big Red Dog on a sign on U.S. 931 right next to the Welcome to Kokomo sign. It’s one of many ways Kokomo has honored one of its favorite sons, Norman Bridwell.
Bridwell was born in Kokomo, Indiana, the son of Vern and Leona Bridwell. As a child he regularly visited the now-demolished Carnegie Library, which sat where the current Kokomo-Howard County Public Library now is. The current library built in 1966 and renovated in 2009. The celebratted its renovation by hosting a photo exhibit about Bridwell’s youth. It included a photo of him as a boy with what he called “my favorite dog,” Fritz. Bridwell said he always dreamed that Fritz was a giant dog, big enough to ride like a pony. That would inspire Clifford, who would be bigger than a house.
Bridwell's dream of being an artist and author began with his first published work, a map of Kokomo, which he drew for the Kokomo High School Sargasso yearbook in 1945. After high school, he attended the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis. Bridwell then moved to New York City, where he attended the Cooper Union Art School before becoming a commercial artist.
Needing to supplement his income after the birth of his daughter, Emily, he sought work as an illustrator. So in 1962, he put together a portfolio of colorful drawings and made the rounds of children’s book publishers. He was rejected by several publishers. An editor at Harper & Row went so far as to tell him that his art was just not good enough. She advised him to write a story to go along with one of his pictures: a sketch of a baby girl and a horse-sized bloodhound. “’There might be a story in this,’” Bridwell remembered her saying.
Today, 129 million copies of more than 150 Clifford the Big Red Dog titles are in print and his stories have been translated into 13 languages. “Sometimes you’ll do something that you really like and no one else does. You’ll feel terrible, but you’ve just got to press on and keep trying. If you like doing it and keep working at it, then someday you will succeed,” Bridwell said.