Elmer: The Story of a Patchwork Elephant was first published thirty years ago. Julia Eccleshare went to meet its creator, David McKee, now very well known not only for his Elmer books but for his many other humorous and surreal picture books some of which contain important messages.
From the window of David McKee’s London flat he has a comfortable view down into the street. While I was negotiating the one ways and parking meter system around his home, he was happily sketching the birds. The cute, fluffed up birds and the calm, modest manner provide cover for a huge talent and an energy that has driven David to his position of eminence among illustrators.
Elmer: A National Monument
David’s success spans over thirty years with highlights including his second book Two Can Toucan (1964), Tusk Tusk (1978), King Rollo and the Bread, the first of the King Rollo stories (1979), Not now, Bernard (1980), Two Monsters(1985) and of course Elmer. Elmer: The Story of a Patchwork Elephant was first published in 1968. It was even followed by a sequel Elmer Again and Again (1975) but, it was not until it was republished in 1989 that it became the book that sourced major merchandising and crossed out of the children’s books ghetto. I asked David if he felt that Elmer overshadowed his other books. ‘Elmer is important for me. partly because of the reaction I get to him from children and teachers. A bookseller in France said to me, “Elmer is a national monument”. Also I know him very well and I enjoy the stories he tells me. In terms of publishing he has snowballed but I have never felt that he has been taken away from me.’ That is because David never allowed this to happen. He refused to make an Elmer film. ‘I didn’t know enough about Elmer for 24 stories and it would have needed three or four major backers. There would have been too many masters and therefore it would not have been so pure by the end.’
Valuing What Matters in Life
Such restraint is typical. David takes his role as an entertainer extremely seriously, caring deeply about what children will get out of his books. ‘We all have a responsibility about what we produce. I like to work for the adult the child will be and the child that the adult has been.’ Some of his earlier books such as Not Now, Bernard and Two Monsters had clear and, by and large, popular messages. Of his recent book, Charlotte’s Piggy Bank (1996), a book about valuing what really matters in life, he says, ‘This may not be one of my most popular books but I consider it to be one of my most important. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious.’
David is so utterly unpretentious that the mere thought is ridiculous but Charlotte’s Piggy Bank reflects his worries about current materialism. ‘I love life and I’m very optimistic but it does worry me that we give so much value to material things. It’s bad for those who apparently have nothing because they have nothing material. I’d like to get back to the value of people.’ And it is not just the worship of money that David objects to, it is also the overvaluing of particular kinds of work. ‘We give all this importance to what we do. But someone who sits by the sea and just tastes the feelings around him – that’s success too. We don’t value things that aren’t quantified. What we should be doing is asking, “What is the value of the man?”’ But, despite such apparent moralising, David observes life rather than judging it. Observing people is what fuels all his work; he always takes his sketch book when he goes for a walk. ‘You hear a conversation and it helps to shape the characters and the story. It’s a way of life, you can’t stop observing and listening. Sometimes it’s like being the first person to hear a story. The air is full of stories and, when one comes, you have to leave your head open to be influenced by it.’ David’s head has been receiving stories while his pen had been illustrating them for years now and his enthusiasm for work remains huge. I’m ill. My therapy is to work. I need to draw everyday,’ he says, but a less ‘ill’ person it would be hard to meet. He is wryly modest about himself and self-deprecating about his success, believing that he has had good chances. He stresses the importance of teamwork in creating a good book and is devoted to Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press for many reasons, including the fact that ‘Klaus likes difficult books’.
Light and Colour
England is ‘home’ for David (it is where he pays his taxes) but he lives much of the time in Nice. ‘It’s because of the light and the colours. And because I feel very comfortable with the French way of life.’ Maybe living in two countries also gives him the best chance of avoiding the publicity which he mostly shuns. ‘It’s the book that should talk. I’m frightened of the cult of the personality.’ And he means it.
Julia Eccleshare is the Children’s Books Editor of the Guardian.