Elmer author David McKee: 'I've never been a prize winner'

The creator of the patchwork elephant and Mr Benn has won the BookTrust lifetime achievement award. He reflects on his career and explains why his best ideas come to him in the bath

David McKee, the author and illustrator who celebrates difference in his stories of the beloved patchwork elephant Elmer, has been named the 2020 recipient of children’s book charity BookTrust’s lifetime achievement award.

McKee, 85, joins a starry roster of former winners of the prize for outstanding contribution to children’s literature, from Shirley Hughes and Judith Kerr to Raymond Briggs, Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham.

Speaking from France, where he lives, McKee said he had never been a prize winner: “And to be truthful I think they’ve made a mistake.

“It’s truly fantastic, and even though I still don’t really believe it, I’m accepting it anyway with great pleasure. I did wonder if [winning a lifetime achievement award] meant that’s it. But I’ll have to finish the one I’m working on, I guess.”

Born in Devon in 1935, McKee originally set out to become a teacher, but while studying at Plymouth College of Art, he realised he could make money selling humorous cartoons to magazines such as Punch. He published his first children’s book, Two Can Toucan, in 1964.

David McKee, author of the Elmer books
‘To be truthful I think they’ve made a mistake’ … David McKee. Photograph: BookTrust

The first Elmer book, which was inspired by Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee and told the story of a colourful patchwork elephant who wants to be grey, followed in 1968.

Elmer and the Stranger
Elmer and the Stranger Photograph: PR

“It was definitely the image that came first. Once the image was there I looked for a name, and it was the usual sort of alliteration with Elmer, elephant, and then the story just came,” McKee said. “What was clear to me was it was about accepting who you are – it’s not always easy, that. I’ve had letters from children who are very grateful because they have some kind of difference. They associate with Elmer and the book becomes special.”

Mr Benn, his much-loved, bowler-hatted businessman who dresses up and goes on adventures, was drawn from real life. “I set it in the street where I lived – I wanted it to come out of the reality of my life. And I put Mr Benn in the house next to mine, in Festing Road in Putney. Mr Benn was probably me looking for an escape, and the escape became the costume shop,” said McKee.

Mr Benn
Mr Benn Photograph: Images courtesy of Clive Juster & Associates / Mr Benn/© David McKee 2017

Four Mr Benn books were published in the 60s and 70s, with the BBC asking McKee to create an animated series based on the books. “When they asked how it would be animated, I just said, ‘I’ll ask somebody.’ It was complete innocence,” he told the Guardian in 2017.

“Too much animation is a mistake when you’re storytelling. It’s often a distraction. So Mr Benn largely relied on simple camera movements – stills, pans and zooms across detailed drawings I made. For things like walking, though, we needed proper movement, but I wasn’t subtle enough. The result looks like something from Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.”

His 1980 picture book Not Now, Bernard, in which a little boy is repeatedly ignored by his parents until he is eaten, and replaced, by a monster, was dreamed up in the bath.

“I’ve often said I think the air is full of stories – you just have to have the right receiver and you pick them up. That was very much Bernard,” McKee said. “I was actually in the bath at the time. It was an epoch when I took quite a few baths on a work basis, because I reckoned that if you lay in the bath long enough, you got a bit wrinkled but your mind was very open and went in strange sideways directions. First of all the title came, and then that was immediately followed by the story.”

He said he didn’t set out to write specifically for children. “I consider I write picture books, and whoever wants to read them can … A picture book is the one book that is shared by an adult and a child. I like to work for the adult that the child will be, and for the child that the adult still is.”

McKee’s win was celebrated by his peers on Thursday. “It would be enough of a lifetime achievement to have created Elmer for the world, but David has done a great deal more than that. So many bedrooms in this country and all over the world are full of his stories,” said Michael Morpurgo. “When I think of the millions of people and children and teachers and grandparents who have adored his stories, I know that no one has deserved this award more.”

The classic picture book, Not Now, Bernard by David McKee, is being updated for its 40th anniversary.
The classic picture book, Not Now, Bernard by David McKee, is being updated for its 40th anniversary. Photograph: Andersen Press
The classic picture book, Not Now, Bernard by David McKee, is being updated for its 40th anniversary.
Not Now, Bernard. Photograph: Andersen Press

Klaus Flugge, the founder of Andersen Press and McKee’s publisher for more than 50 years, called him “a shining light in children’s books that highlights inclusivity, diversity and parts of our world that are not always present in children’s books”.

“David McKee understands the importance of always paying attention to children and what he gives them is first-rate,” said journalist Nicolette Jones, who chaired the judging panel, while BookTrust chief executive Diana Gerald praised McKee’s “incredible contribution to children’s literature that crosses cultures, generations and languages”.

McKee said he had no intention of retiring. He is working on another Elmer story, in which the patchwork elephant is babysitting two baby elephants.

“What would I do, if I stopped?” he asked. “This is what I do, and I guess that’s the life, really. Writing, drawing, painting – it helps keep me fairly well, I think.”

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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