It is shaping up to be a big year for David McKee. The 84-year-old picture book legend is Illustrator of the Fair at this year’s London Book Fair; his publisher, Andersen Press, is celebrating 30 years of publishing Elmer the Elephant; and Newcastle museum Seven Stories is running an exhibition dedicated to his work.
"I don’t know why they chose me to be Illustrator of the Fair... perhaps Klaus [Flugge, founder of and publisher at Andersen Press] paid them," he jokes, underplaying the fact that over the years he has created many of the UK’s most beloved picture books, not only those starring Elmer the Elephant but also Not Now, Bernard, Two Monsters, Two Can Toucan and the Mr Benn series, sold millions of titles along the way, and also set up a successful children’s TV production company, King Rollo Films.
The accolade is "amazing", if unexpected—"I didn’t know there was such a thing", he says—and McKee will discuss his career at an in-conversation event with Ren Renwick, c.e.o. of the Association of Illustrators today (Tuesday 12th March, 1.15 p.m.), as part of the fair’s Illustrate Your Point programme.
Part of the reason LBF chose McKee this year is surely the 30th anniversary of Andersen releasing Elmer, which, according to the publisher, has sold more than 10 million copies around the world. Elmer was in fact first published by Dobson Books in 1968, but after founder Dennis Dobson died and the book went out of print, Flugge
decided to bring the patchwork elephant back to life in 1989, and the series took off.
The inspiration behind Elmer is often cited as being a racist incident McKee’s daughter suffered as a child, but the illustrator says that isn’t strictly true. The family did experience racism when his children were young (McKee’s late wife was Anglo-Indian) but Elmer was also the combination of two things he liked to draw: elephants and squares. "At the time I liked drawing elephants. I was a painter as well and my paintings were squared up, a bit Paul Klee-ish, and one day I mixed the two," he says. "One day I put the squares on the elephant, then I looked at him and the name Elmer, Elmer the Elephant, the usual alliteration, came to me."
When Flugge published the story, McKee shortened the book to 32 pages (from 42) and was "slightly stricter" about matching the colours of the squares from page to page. But the story remained largely the same. It was an "instant" success, and grew and grew over the years: Andersen Press has since turned Elmer into one of the most recognisable children’s brands. As well as being the star of the books—which have been translated into languages including Curaçao Papiamento, Luxembourgish and Azerbaijani—Elmer now features on toys, clothes, crockery and—one of McKee’s personal favourites—a children’s money-box.
One of the reasons Elmer has remained so popular is its gentle message of inclusion and acceptance, and McKee is pleased that readers see a moral message between the pages, whether that be anti-racism or pro-LGBT+ rights. "When the story came to me it was complete, and I only saw the moral side later, perhaps when I was developing it," he says. "My stories tend to have a moral feeling even if there isn’t a moral. I liked fables and parables when I was young. I liked the fact that afterwards you find a different meaning in the same story."
McKee was born and grew up in Devon and went to art school to "avoid getting a job". "I was supposed to go and work with my father, who did work with farmers, but he had two weeks’ holiday a year. I thought I would become a teacher and teach art, because I was top at art, but when I went to art college I realised I didn’t want to be one."
He created cartoons for newspapers and magazines, but the move into kids’ books came after he picked up a copy of André François’s 1955 picture book Crocodile Tears and thought, "I can do one of those". He adds, "I did it the wrong way round. I never went to see a publisher, I just did the book and sent it in," although his strategy worked: Two Can Toucan was published by Abelard-Schuman in 1964.
The early 1960s was also when he met Flugge, now his best friend, who over the years has published most of McKee’s biggest hits. "Klaus was the master of selling rights abroad, that’s what he really brought [to the industry] at the time. When I started I was lucky, because at the time parents hadn’t seen many picture books apart from those by maybe John Burningham and Michael Foreman. I don’t think I would make it now."
The illustrator has created around 50 books for Andersen but says he doesn’t have favourites. He mentions Not Now, Bernard, about a boy whose parents don’t realise he has been eaten by a monster, and the "surreal" I Ate My Teddy Bear, but is mostly "just interested in what the next thing is going to be".
He has also worked with a number of big-name authors and brands over the years, and says he has been "lucky" with his collaborators. "Michael Bond said he always liked my Paddingtons... but then he would have said that, he was such a nice man."
Looking to the future, he has just started work on a new Elmer, laughing that the patchwork elephant "won’t leave him alone". He still paints Elmer in the same way, using gouache initially, then crayons, and then pencil to add definition. There will be a number of 30th anniversary celebrations this year too, including the release of the latest title Elmer’s Birthday, an Elmer Day for schools, bookshops and nurseries (on 25th May), and interactive art parades in Tyne and Wear, Suffolk and Plymouth.
And McKee confirms that he has no plans to retire. "If you retire, you retire to do what you want to do. So what would I do? I would write, paint and draw."