I've never had much luck reviewing distinctly simple picture books like "Clifford". In the past, my observations of such books as the "Spot" series have been universally loathed by those parents who like their picture books sweet, simple, and relatively bereft of complexity. And "Clifford", sad to say, sort of falls into that category. But I hadn't read the books in years, and with the overwhelming popularity of the "Clifford" television series, I thought I'd give that big ole lovable red-tinged dog another go. So I went to the library, found myself a copy, and settled down. The book was pretty much as I remembered it. Simple words that kids can understand. Funny situations that a big dog can get into (chasing cats = chasing lions when your dog is big enough). All in all, I was a little surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. "There you go", I told myself. "You've been pooh-poohing this nice book all for naught". But you know what I really loved about "Clifford"? The killer illustrations circa 1963. They were great. The edition of the book I read was republished in 1985 and had all the classic elements of the genre. You meet Emily Elizabeth as she scoots up on a wicked soap box scooter. And those black and yellow striped socks of hers? Awesome! I also enjoyed how hangdogish Clifford sometimes looked. When Emily Elizabeth feeds him a cartload of cupcakes and tea, I loved his wide mouth and oddly disturbed expression. Yep. Sometimes the classic pictures are the best.
So I went to Amazon.com to write my I-liked-it-but-there-are-still-much-better-picture-books review. While determining which version to comment on (my copy was paperback but the only choices were board book or hardcover) I thought it might be wise to just make sure that the object I'd be reviewing looked the same as the current reissue. I mean, I wasn't worried particularly. Why would they change the original "Clifford"? Well I was in for a bit of a nasty shock. Thanks to Amazon.com's "Search inside the book option" I saw for myself how the mighty are fallen. They haven't just updated Clifford. They've radically redesigned him. No longer does Emily Elizabeth break out the classic shoddily built boxcar scooter. Now she's a pink wearing cardigan girl with remarkably boring white socks. Those kids who stared up at Clifford in horror? They're now grown-ups with better looking dogs. And Clifford? Well, let's just say he's completely lost his sometimes-mournful doggy expressions. This is a new streamlined Clifford for a new Millennium. I also doubt the "bad boys" referred to in the text look like the crew-cut poindexters I enjoyed so much in the original.
Now I know why this happened, of course. Times change. I mean, there wasn't a single minority to be found in the original edition. Now we have multi-ethnic couples looking up at Clifford with profound fear and distress. And that's not a problem. The problem I have is with the other updates. What was wrong with Emily Elizabeth's ever changing but always colorful array of socks? One minute they're green and black and the next they're pink and black. What was wrong with her soapbox derby or those oddly clean cut bullies? Ah well. The sad thing is that these recent changes, undoubtedly done for Clifford's 40th anniversary, took away a lot of the things that made the original book so much fun.
Not that your kids will care. They will still love Clifford as much as they ever had. They'll adore the idea of having their own house-sized mongrel to climb on and play with. And the fact that he's red is just an added bonus. It's a sweet book, yes. And it has a nice title character. But if you want my private opinion, the original's the best. It will not look 100% like the Clifford your kids see on t.v., but neither (for that matter) do a lot of the early "Arthur" books. There are better picture books for kids out there, but if you have picky children who only want to read books that have some sort of a connection to television, then you're not doing too badly with good ole "Clifford". The biggest, reddiest, doggiest pup there be.