Until 16th April 2023, the Horniman Museum in London is holding a retrospective of the late David McKee’s colourful illustrations. Mckee was a British author of children’s books, most notably Elmer the Patchwork Elephant. Since its publication in 1968, the original Elmer book has sold over ten million copies worldwide, making it one of the most-read children’s books. McKee is also responsible for other much-loved characters, such as Not Now Bernard, King Rollo and Mr Benn.
David John McKee was born on 2nd January 1935 in Tavistock, Devon. He attended the Plymouth College of Art, where he subsidised his studies by selling cartoons to newspapers. After graduating, McKee continued to produce regular artwork for national publications, such as the Reader’s Digest, the Times Educational Supplement and Punch, a satirical magazine. In 1964, McKee published his first children’s book, Two Can Toucan.
McKee first published Elmer the Patchwork Elephant with Dobson Books in 1968, although he re-issued a shortened version with Andersen Press in 1989. Elmer is not like other elephants with their grey, nondescript skin. Instead, the cheerful creature sports a patchwork of different colours: yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, blue, green, black and white. Despite the difference between Elmer and his peers, he remains an optimistic fellow with a rather mischievous streak.
The original Elmer book is notable for its exploration of cultural diversity. Although Elmer did not mind looking different, he wondered what it would be like to look like all the other elephants. One day, he decided to paint himself grey and blend in with the others. None of the elephants recognised Elmer, nor did the other animals in the story. Unable to take the silence, Elmer shouted “BOO”, making all the elephants jump. They immediately knew Elmer from his voice and fell about laughing. The elephants congratulated Elmer on his best joke ever and laughed even more when it began to rain, washing away the grey paint.
Elmer’s friends reassured him that they preferred his multicoloured and fun-loving personality. They proposed to name the day Elmer painted himself grey “Elmer Day”. Each year on “Elmer Day”, Elmer painted himself grey while the other elephants decorated themselves with multicoloured paint.
Primary schools, libraries and bookshops across the UK have adopted “Elmer Day” to “celebrate everyone’s true colours”. Everyone is unique in their appearance and the way they think and feel. “Elmer Day” encourages children to accept other people’s differences. Since 2016, “Elmer Day” has been celebrated at the end of May, roughly coinciding with the anniversary of the 1989 re-print.
Following the re-print of Elmer in 1989, McKee published 42 more books about the colourful elephant, starting with Elmer Again in 1991 and ending with Elmer and the Gift in 2022. In 2020, McKee won the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement award and the British Book Awards Nibbies Illustrator of the Year. McKee never expected to win, stating he had “never been one for the spotlight or winning awards,” yet nine years earlier, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from Plymouth College of Art.
In 2019, Elmer took to the stage in the Elmer The Patchwork Elephant Show, adapted by Suzanne Miller and featuring songs by Allison Leyton-Brown. Although the show was primarily for entertainment, it contained a subtle message about being yourself. Later that year, the London Symphony Orchestra held an interactive storytelling session, recreating the 40th book in the series, Elmer’s Walk (2018), with music and dance.
In 2014, The Guardian named Elmer an LGBTQ+ icon. Although the movement celebrates sexual equality, the newspaper felt Elmer a fitting mascot due to his message of true colours, acceptance and inclusivity. Two years later, Elmer became the face of Just Like Us, an LGBTQ+ young people’s charity that aims to tackle homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying in schools. Every year, schools are encouraged to participate in School Diversity Week, which celebrates pupils’ differences.
This year, 2023, Elmer has partnered with Alzheimer’s Research UK. McKee’s final book in the series, Elmer and the Gift (2022), deals with the effects of memory loss. Elmer’s Aunt Zelda has a gift to give Elmer from his Grandpa Eldo, but she cannot remember what or where it is. Although Zelda’s memory and hearing are often poor, Elmer helps her search for the missing present while displaying love, patience and respect for his elderly relative. Many young readers may recognise some of the themes in their families, particularly if a loved one is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s Research UK aims to raise awareness of dementia and how people can help care for sufferers. Book sales also help raise money for the charity, which supports families and individuals, plus supplies funding for scientists searching for a cure, treatment or prevention of the disease. To increase support, Hollywood actor Will Pouter (b. 1993) recorded himself reading the book, which will be available online. When interviewed, Poulter revealed, “I loved reading the story of Elmer and the Gift in support of Alzheimer’s Research UK. Thousands of families are impacted by dementia and talking about it to friends and family of any age is incredibly difficult. David McKee’s Elmer the Patchwork Elephant is colourful, trusted, and nostalgic for many parents, making the story a great way to start these important conversations with little ones.”
Elmer is not McKee’s only creation. Predating the colourful elephant is Mr Benn, a man recognised for his black suit and bowler hat. The first of the four original Mr Benn books, Mr Benn Red Knight, was published in 1967 and became an animated television show in 1971. The majority of the stories, both in the books and on television, feature a similar pattern. Every day, Mr Benn leaves his house at 52 Festive Road, London, and visits a fancy dress shop. On each visit, he tries on a different outfit, which transports him to an appropriate world. In the first story, Mr Benn tries on a red knight’s armour and finds himself face-to-face with a dragon. On another occasion, he travels to several weird and wonderful planets while dressed as an astronaut.
McKee intended to write six Mr Benn books, but only four were published: Mr Benn Red Knight, Big Game Benn, 123456789 Benn, and Big Top Benn. McKee adapted the fifth book, Mr Benn Rides Again, for television and the sixth, Superbenn, never became more than an idea. In 2001, McKee eventually published a new story, Mr Benn – Gladiator. In the same year, Tess Read published Mr Benn’s Little Book of Life, which examined the Mr Benn stories, particularly the moral messages. With the Mr Benn series, and the later Elmer books, McKee subliminally added life lessons for children.
Between 1971 and 1972, McKee wrote, illustrated and animated 13 Mr Benn episodes for the BBC. Each episode lasted 15 minutes, with Ray Brooks (b. 1939) providing the narration. In 2005, the BBC released an animated version of the final book in the series, Mr Benn – Gladiator.
In 1978, McKee established King Rollo Films, an animation production company which continues to produce children’s cartoons up to the present day. The studio began with King Rollo, based on a series of books by McKee. Rollo is a childish king who always needs advice and assistance from his friends. In the first book, King Rollo and the New Shoes (1979), Rollo gets his first pair of lace-up shoes. After a lot of patience from Rollo’s friend, the magician, plus a lot of shouting and banging from Rollo, the king eventually learns how to tie his new shoes.
King Rollo Films expanded to include animations by other illustrators, including The Adventures of Spot (1987), Maisy (1999-2000), and Poppy Cat (2011). McKee occasionally worked as a writer for these shows.
Elmer, Mr Benn and King Rollo are considered children’s classic picture books, as is McKee’s 1980 story Not Now, Bernard. The publisher, Andersen Press, initially had reservations about the book because they thought it might frighten children and cause controversy. Yet, Not Now, Bernard has been translated into more than 20 languages and has never been out of print.
Not Now, Bernard is about a young boy who wants attention from his preoccupied parents. After being told “Not now, Bernard”, he ventures into the garden, where he is eaten by a monster. The badly behaved monster pretends to be Bernard for the rest of the day, but the parents never notice. Finally, the monster tries to tell Bernard’s mother that he is a monster, but all she replies is “Not now, Bernard”.
Some schools banned Not Now, Bernard for violence, but that did not stop it from becoming a popular story. The Guardian described it as a “cautionary tale of the perils of ignoring children”, and actress Sheila Hancock (b. 1933) claimed the book “demonstrates that parents can be naughty too” and “when we don’t listen to people, monsters can take over”.
McKee divided his time between London and southern France, where he lived with his partner Bakhta, a French-Algerian art dealer. The couple had a shared interest in collecting drawings and African tribal art. McKee had three children from his first marriage to Barbara Ennuss and once lived at 54 Festing Road, Putney, which served as inspiration for Mr Benn’s house at 52 Festive Road. McKee did not earn a great deal from his books and animations, particularly Mr Benn, for which he accepted a lump sum rather than earn royalties. McKee revealed in an interview that Bakhta shared his outlook on money. “She’s just a happy person and doesn’t ask for anything. If we walk hand in hand that’s enough.” Yet, McKee did buy a Picasso ceramic bowl for £300, knowing it was worth £1,000.
David McKee died on 6th April 2022 after a short illness. Although he did not believe he deserved the BookTrust lifetime achievement award, he definitely earned it. Evidenced by the recent Horniman exhibition, Elmer the Elephant is here to stay and continues to be adapted for the present day. Mckee’s books entertained children for decades, and towards the end of his career, McKee helped other characters, such as Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, reach new audiences by providing illustrations for updated stories. No doubt Elmer the Elephant will receive the same treatment in the future as he continues to support inclusivity and Alzheimer’s Research UK.
If you wish to visit the Elmer and Friends exhibition at the Horniman Museum, tickets are available until 16th April 2023. Entry is £5 for adults and £3 for children, although family deals are available. Please visit the Horniman website for more details.
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