McKee shares the secrets of Elmer success after lifetime achievement win

McKee shares the secrets of Elmer success after lifetime achievement win

David McKee’s now-revered picture book Tusk Tusk was once banned in a number of libraries in the UK, the illustrator said after celebrating winning this year’s BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award. 

“Going from being banned to winning a lifetime achievement award is very strange,” said McKee (pictured above), who thinks the librarians in question “didn’t get” the message behind Tusk Tusk: a 1978 story about two groups of elephants (one black, one white) that fight each other because of the colour of their skins. “My first wife was Anglo-Indian. We were invited to South Africa but we would have been staying at different hotels, so we didn’t go,” he told The Bookseller

“I thought, ‘I’m living close enough to it, why don’t they understand?’ I thought it was amazing.”

Another book that is now regarded as a classic, Not Now, Bernard, attracted criticism from readers who thought the depiction of a monster eating a child was a “bit strong”, he said. Others objected to 2010’s Denver, about a rich and generous man who gives away his money, moves away and earns a second fortune, leaving his former town-mates discontented. Reviewers online still question what the message of the story is. “I like provoking discussions and money needs to be discussed,” McKee said. 

McKee’s career spans more than 60 years and he has made an “incredible” contribution to children’s books “that crosses cultures, generations and languages”, said BookTrust. Not Now, Bernard, now a staple of any good children’s library, has sold more than five million copies, according to McKee’s publisher Andersen Press. He has sold 1.6 million books for £7.8m through Nielsen BookScan UK, and the 30th-anniversary Elmer special edition, published in 2007, is his bestseller, on 228,901 copies sold.

Elmer, conceived as a story about accepting who you are, is still an ongoing series; Elmer and The Lost Treasure came out in hardback last month. The next Elmer title, due for release in autumn next year, is about “childminding and telling stories and exercise”, and shows Elmer having to look after two little elephants when their mother goes to see her sister, McKee said. 

Another recent release was the 35th-anniversary edition of Two Monsters, published in August, although some of the insults in the book have been changed. “Fat” had to go, for example. 

McKee isn’t thinking about retirement any time soon. “One of the things that happens with age is you get more obligations,” he said. “It’s harder, but I’m working every day. It’s all I really want to do… I’m very old fashioned. I don’t have the internet. I don’t use a mobile phone. I don’t even wear a watch. Life is much nicer like that.”