In Memory of David McKee: Celebrating a Life of Colour
By Annabella Costantino, Michaela O’Callaghan, Joanne Boustead, Aimee Haldron and Lauren Gantt
“Children’s books can contribute to changing attitudes and are instrumental in helping children shape their view of the world.” – David McKee, Book Trust (2020)
David McKee’s words have inspired generations of readers across the globe, promoting positive attitudes towards children reading for pleasure. After publishing his first book, Two Can Toucan in 1964 with Klaus Flugge, McKee joined Flugge at Anderson Press, creating over fifty books with the publisher. As stated by Andersen Press, many of his classic works have become a “part of the canon of children’s literature,” with themes of inclusivity and friendship making his books household classics that readers will always remember. Following his recent passing, join us as we highlight some of our childhood favourites and celebrate the life and works of this truly iconic author.
Elmer is probably David McKee’s most beloved and well-known character. Elmer is a patchwork elephant who wants to look like all the other elephants, so colours himself grey. However, Elmer soon discovers that everyone prefers Elmer’s multi-coloured and true self anyway. There are over 40 titles in this series, and Andersen Press even organises a specific Elmer Day in May to celebrate the character. Celebrated as one of the “most iconic and widely read children’s book series of all time,” Elmer has sold over ten million copies in its lifetime. The series has also been translated into over sixty languages, with many new novelty books and toys also becoming available. Worldwide, both children and adults have resonated with the character of Elmer and through his adventures, have learnt to celebrate themselves and be proud of who they are.
Not Now, Bernard
Not Now Bernard was first published in 1980 and is about a parent ignoring their child Bernard. Bernard has found a monster, but his parents are too busy to notice and keep on telling him “not now, Bernard.” In the end, Bernard gets eaten by the monster, who ends up snuggling in Bernard’s bed all nice and cosy. We love the repetitive and simplistic style of this picture book as well as the vibrant energy that accompanies the text. According to Book Trust, as of 2021, Not Now, Bernard has sold over five million copies and in 2020, an updated version was released for the next generation of parents.
Mr Benn is a children’s character who first appeared in the children’s book Mr Benn Red Knight in 1967, as well as three follow up books. In this series, Mr Benn leaves his house each morning to visit a costume shop and to try on a particular outfit. He then sneaks out a magic door in the back and enters into a world befitting his costume to go on an adventure of both moral and magical delight. At the end of his adventure, Mr Benn would return to the shop and his normal life, though he would be left with a souvenir of each of his magical adventures. In addition to the book series, McKee also animated a Mr Benn television series for the BBC in 1971, that has been “loved by several generations of viewers” over the years.
Over his career, David McKee won a number of different awards. Most notably, in 2020 he was awarded the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his entire body of work. On being recognised, McKee said “it is a total surprise” but to many generations of both children and adults alike, he has had a huge part of their upbringing. He was also named Illustrator of the Year at the 2020 British Book Awards, which is testimony to his vibrant and dynamic illustrating style. In his own words, McKee describes picture books as “a child’s first glimpse into the art world and in some way, especially with some of my books, the illustrations are actually more important than the story.” We know that even after his sad death, the legacy of his stories will live on in future generations of readers.
It is clear to see the impact that David McKee has had not only on children’s publishing, but on people’s lives as a whole. Enjoying his loveable characters and vivid illustrations is a formative experience for many, as demonstrated in the rush of responses on social media to his passing. His contribution to children’s literature has left its mark, with his books a staple on every child’s bookshelf and found in every school library. In the words of his long-time publisher, Klaus Flugge, “his was a singular voice and a shining light in children’s books.” To read the full statement following his passing, visit the Andersen Press website and check out this tribute from the book world in The Bookseller.