THIS & THAT: Letter turns into 40-year friendship for Penticton woman and Clifford writer

Penticton resident Hannah Hyland shares her story of friendship with Norman Bridwell, author of Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Kristi Patton is the editor of the Penticton Western News.

Kristi Patton is the editor of the Penticton Western News.

Penticton resident Hannah Hyland shared with me an amazing story of how a handwritten letter set the path to a 40-year friendship with an internationally known author.

It began with a simple note, a comment to one of her kid’s favourite children’s book authors, Norman Bridwell. While his name did not ring a bell immediately, Clifford did — as in Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Hannah sent the author a handwritten letter, not expecting a thing in return. Some simple advice that she appreciated Clifford, as did her children, and he should stick with the books rather than another venture he had started. It was from that little note that a 40-year pen pal friendship formed.

“I had written to other authors before and they told me it is sure nice to get a letter from somebody because when they are writing so much they never know what people actually think of it,” said Hannah. “The friendship grew bit by bit. People get busy with their lives and their families and a friendship like this could get lost in all of that, but ours didn’t.”

While technology is said to connect us more to the world, Hannah found a way to keep the lost art of putting pen to paper and create a true friendship. She admits that perhaps it was the fact that the time was taken to put their thoughts in ink on paper that it helped develop that relationship.

“A handwritten letter, that is something special,” she says. “Just like how I would rather have a greasy fingerprinted recipe card than look at one on a computer screen. It is that personal touch.”

On Dec. 12 Bridwell, 86, died, and Hannah felt compelled to share the story of their friendship with me. She presented letters that eventually, with the turn of technology, turned to emails and photos exchanged of their families. More recently, she stayed in touch with Bridwell’s wife on the phone as he was not in good health. They talked about their children, vacation plans or whatever they were going through at the moment.

Just like many of the friends Clifford made over the years, Hannah explained she also never got to meet hers. At one time she and her husband were at a wedding in the midwest U.S. and decided to give Bridwell a phone call, he was in his hometown in the same state. Unfortunately she was on her way to the airport. A missed connection by minutes that didn’t stymie this long-distance friendship in the least.

“I felt a close connection because we talked and wrote to each other so often. I praised him for the ethics he had in his stories of honesty, acceptance, loyalty and courage. Things that I apply and appreciate in my life,” said Hannah.

Hannah divulged that Bridwell was very much like Clifford, who he featured in about 150 books, with 129 million in print in 13 languages and eventually became an animated series.

In an interview he did with NPR in 2012 he said every person who wrote to Clifford received a reply.

“I think if they care enough to sit down and write, I should give them an answer,” said Bridwell.

Humble, gracious Bridwell created Clifford to teach children that you don’t have to be perfect, you can make mistakes, you can forgive people and be encouraging. In a statement by Scholastic after Bridwell’s death they praised him for the personifying the values that many hope to communicate to their children. Clifford taught kindness, compassion, helpfulness, unconditional love and gratitude.

Before his death, Bridwell completed two more Clifford books that will be released this year,Clifford Goes to Kindergarten in May and Clifford Celebrates Hanukkah in October. Books that no doubt continue the tradition that has been over 50 years in the making.

The loss of a friend she never got to meet face-to-face, leaves Hannah with the memories she has from those handwritten letters and through his books which her children now share with theirs.

When asked if there is one thing she wished out of their pen pal friendship, Hannah said for everyone who has every been touched by the books of the clumsy, big, red dog or learned a lesson from the author’s gentle humour to write his family a handwritten letter. Bridwell told theKokomo Tribune in November that he wants to be remembered as, “Somebody who made children laugh. Someone who gave kids a pleasant experience with books.”

What a nice tribute it would be if his family was flooded with letters about just that.

Letters can be mailed to: Norman Bridwell, P.O. Box 2486, Edgartown, MA 02539, USA.

Kristi Patton is the editor for the Penticton Western News