Norman Bridwell, 86, a soft-spoken illustrator whose impromptu story about a girl and her puppy marked the unlikely birth of the supersized franchise Clifford the Big Red Dog, died Friday at a Massachusetts hospital.

Mr. Bridwell had been hospitalized since a fall at his Martha's Vineyard home three weeks ago.

His idea for the books: Thanks to a girl's affection, a puppy - the runt of the litter - grows into a klutzy but good-hearted behemoth, as big as a lighthouse.

Starting in 1963 with Clifford, the Big Red Dog, Mr. Bridwell wrote and illustrated more than 40 Clifford books. More than 120 million copies have sold worldwide, along with cartoons, a feature film, stuffed animals, and more. Images of Clifford have appeared everywhere from museums to the White House.

"A lot of people were Clifford fans, and that makes them Norman fans, too," said his wife of 56 years, Norma.

The author had completed two more Clifford books to be released next year. - AP