Archive for Around the Web

On the Passing of Norman Bridwell, Creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog

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I was hired by Scholastic as a junior copywriter back in 1985 for the princely sum of $11,500. To get the initial interview, I mailed in my near-empty resume and a writing sample, which addressed the hot topic of the day, Bernie Goetz, New York’s “subway shooter.”

After the first set of interviews with Willie Ross and Carol Skolnick, I was given a bunch of children’s books and asked to write about them in two voices. First, for young children, and secondly, for teachers. Writing about Curious George to students, I wrote something like, “Yikes! That silly monkey is in trouble again!” For teachers, the idea was to take a different tone, such as, “In this classic tale, award-winning author H.A. Rey conveys the hilarious antics of Curious George, one of the most enduring and beloved characters in all of children’s literature.”

I got the job writing the SeeSaw Book Club.

One of the first assignments I was asked to perform was to write brief promotional brochures on three authors: Ann McGovern, Johanna Hurwitz, and Norman Bridwell. I was given their phone numbers, told to call them, set up an interview.

“Call them?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“On the phone?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Um, me?”

“Yes, you.”

I stared at that phone for a few minutes, mustered up my courage, and pushed the numbers.

That’s the first time I spoke with Norman Bridwell. He was then, as he would forever remain, a humble, soft-spoken, generous man. The first Clifford book, published in 1963, came out in two-color, in an inexpensive, horizontal format. It looked cheap, because it was. But in the early 80s somebody at Scholastic had the bright idea of repackaging those books in a mass market, 8″ x 8″ format — and in vibrant full color. The books took off and the Big Red Dog became one of the great success stories in children’s literature. In fact, one can accurately imagine the Scholastic corporation as a great sled with Clifford the Big Red Dog hauling it through the snow. That benign character helped propel a company to greatness.

Through it all, Norman remained the same kind, gentle man. No one ever spoke badly of him. No one, not ever.

He was always courteous, generous, kind. Even grateful, I think. Norman always seemed to consider himself lucky. And the truth is, he was fortunate. I don’t think anyone makes it really big in this business without a little luck shining down on you. Norman understood that.

NETFLIX, INC. SCHOLASTIC INC. CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG

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He deserved his success, for he had created something pure and genuine that touched hearts, and through it all he remained faithful to the essential core of what those books were all about. The love between a child and her dog, with a bunch of jokes and gags thrown in to get you to that final hug.

One other quick story about Clifford. It was sometime later, let’s call it the early 1990s, and I was in Ed Monagle’s office, chatting away. At that time, I’d moved upstate, gone freelance, and was trying to survive as a writer. (True story: I’m still trying to survive as a writer.) Ed was a terrific guy, but also a numbers guy. A financial analyst, chief bean counter at Scholastic. Ed cared about the books, and believed in the central mission of the company, but he was also impressed by profit-and-loss statements. He admired Clifford’s sales numbers, and respected the size of Norman’s royalty checks.

So on this day, Ed gave me some friendly advice. He said, “Jimmy, this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to invent a character that everyone loves. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. Do you have any idea how many of those books we sell? You could do that!” he continued. “I mean, think about Clifford. He’s a dog. He’s big. He’s red. How hard could it be?!

That’s the thing with magic, I guess. It never looks difficult.

Ed was right, of course, the idea was laughably simple. He was also completely wrong. Clifford the Big Red Dog was an exceptional idea, marvelous in its simplicity, executed to perfection.

Not so easy after all.

Norman Bridwell passed away this week. And I’m here to say, very quietly, that he was a really good guy. I’m sorry to see him go.

 

I Am Becoming This Guy . . .

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Ha, well, that’s a little bit of me, I guess. I’m 53 and I did, in fact, grow up in a different world, one that would be increasingly unrecognizable to young people today.

I loved my stick.

And sometimes when I look at my own kids, half-watching TV as they half-scan their cell phones, fully nowhere, I wonder about what might have been lost.

I spent last week observing in four different second-grade classrooms (I want to write about that another time, when I have time), talking to teachers, or I should say, listening to teachers, and they do generally have concerns about this age of technology and what it might mean for listening and conversational skills. But whenever I get on this topic, it’s hard not to feel like that cliche, “back in my day . . .”

Carry on!

“Library” — An Animated Poem by Scroobius Pip

 

What is a Scroobius Pip? Well, from what I can gather, Scroobius is no relation to any of the “pips” that — or who? — hung out with Gladys Knight. Born David Meads, Scroobius is a poet and hip hop recording artist out of England. Essex, specifically. A word guy. According to The Independent: “Mellifluous magician, street scribe, punk-poet with pop sensibilities, Pip conjures truly modern verse of genuine incision.”

Looks like a lot of fun to hang out with, too.

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For what it’s worth, I dug around the interwebs and unearthed this comment to Mr. Pip from a fan. Too cool:

“Hey Scroobius Pip, You saved a life.

I just wanted to let you know that one of the main reasons i am alive and am able to type this is because of you. After being on the verge of suicide multiple times in the past, i stumbled upon your song “Magicians Assistant”. Your words filled my mind and distorted my view on my situation.

I will keep this short, but you changed the way i thought, and in turn snapped me the hell out of my mindset. It was a long journey, but recently i can look in the mirror and say im happy with my life. I just wanted you to know that, and i thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

 

How to Tip the Chambermaid

Over the past five years, I’ve traveled a lot to visit schools in far-flung places: Oklahoma, California, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, South Carolina, Massachusetts, etc. Mostly I stay in the NY/NJ area. But regardless, the basic fact remains: I’m not at home. I’m often alone, away from my family, unwrapping a plastic cup from inside a plastic wrapper. Sigh.

51LvdCXV+dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_One of life’s little puzzles is how to properly tip the chambermaid. For the longest time, I was never quite sure. So I faked it, without much rhyme or reason. Last year I met author Kate Klise in a hotel in Rye, NY. We share the same tour administrator, the awesome Kerri Kunkel McPhail, who organizes and coordinates our school visits in the greater Westchester area and beyond. It’s a rare treat to meet real, live authors, especially since we spend most of our working lives alone, tapping out words on a keyboard. I quickly learned Kate is a hugely talented author, dedicated and wise to the ways of the world, and a kind person, too. I liked her a lot.

Sitting in the lobby, we hit upon the topic of hotel living. I must have said something about tipping the chambermaid, because Kate gave me a suggestion that I’ve used in every hotel stay since.

I leave $5 each morning. In the past, I’d often waited for the end of my stay, but I realized that it might cause an unfair distribution. A different hotel maid might be working that day. Better to leave a smaller amount daily. Five seems like the right number to me, though I didn’t arrive at that figure scientifically. Here’s where Kate told me her approach. She said, “I always leave a little thank you note.”

2698349-1“You do?”

“Yes. It’s such a tough job — think about it. I feel like the least I can do is just write a short note of appreciation.”

Nice, right?

It immediately made sense to me. After all, that’s all anybody ever wants in this life. Some basic recognition, a note of appreciation. The tip is one thing, certainly, but taking one minute for a quick note brings it to a higher level.

Now every morning in a hotel before I’m rushing out for a day’s work, I quickly grab a piece of paper, write “THANK YOU!” or some variation, and leave a tip.

And every time, I feel good about leaving behind a little extra kindness.

And last week, for the first time, I got a response . . . with three exclamation marks.

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Cartoon for Teachers: My Dog Ate My Homework (or maybe not)

Hey, teachers, librarians, educators, and so on . . . you might enjoy this.

Carry on and have a great school year. You do such an important job, play such a vital role in the life and development of our children. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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This Is Remarkably Accurate to My Writing Process

Thanks to Algonquin Books . . . and cartoonist Tom Gauld, who nails it.

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New Slide for School Visits

Came across this today and thought it would make a good slide for my Middle School presentations. It basically expresses where I come out on all the tips and strategies for so-called “Bully Proofing” a school. It’s why these students don’t need to be preached to. They already know. They just need to be encouraged to listen, and supported when they do.

When my presentation is over — which is decidedly not about bully-proofing a school, it’s about writing books — I like to keep up a final slide while the students filter out. Most of my slides are just images, not words. But at the end, I think that last slide can have words. This one just might make the cut.

Thank you, Shel Silverstein!

JUST FOR LAUGHS: Mad Men Without Smoking

Both of my parents smoked. I grew up in a cloud of cigarette smoke. We’d go on long drives for our summer vacations in Vermont, seven children and my parents packed in a station wagon, and they’d smoke for seven hours, windows closed. Mom made dozens of sandwiches for the road, wrapped in wax paper. We chewed and gagged, swallowed and coughed. Things were different back then. Not complaining, it’s just the way it was, especially growing up in the 60s and 70s (born in 1961). So I guess I’ve always had an affection for smokers, or at least sympathy.

When I watch Mad Men on TV, I see my parents’ world re-imagined, an era that speaks to my soul.

Anyway, this is funny . . . Hat tip to the “Ellen” show.

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Let It Snow/Make It So Mashup

For your edification . . .

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Scared of Santa, Revisited, Again (because it never gets old)

I’m REPOSTING from the “Greatest Hits” collection . . .

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No, I don’t know why good, sane, well-intentioned people do this to their children.

This guy terrifies even me — I keep thinking he should have a lit Chesterfield and a glass of bourbon in his hands, not an innocent lamb.

I remember that my parents once gave me the “opportunity” to meet Santa at a shopping mall somewhere on Long Island. I sized up the situation from a distance, planted my feet, and said, “Nuh-ugh.” A Christmas Story is surely my favorite holiday movie (absolutely love it), and they handled this particular life passage — the visit with Santa — to perfection. But then again, I think that whole movie is genius.

Here’s the book, and here’s my original post (with different photos) about the book from last holiday season.