TRIBUTE have been paid to the author and illustrator of the iconic books Elmer the Patchwork Elephant and Mr Benn David McKee by residents of his home town of Tavistock following his death last week.
Mr McKee, 87, was born and raised in the West Devon town which honored him in 2019 when the town’s Lions club used Elmer as inspiration for the carnival – 30 years after the publication of the Elmer’s first book.
Tavistock Primary School, which has a permanent model of Elmer at its reception which the children designed and painted during this anniversary year, said Mr Mckee was ‘a wonderful children’s author and illustrator’ and Tavistock Lion Steve Grummit said he was very sad to hear of his death in France.
David McKee’s character, Elmer, first appeared in 1968 in the book of the same name, and since then he has inspired children and adults alike with his wisdom.
Elmer is a multicolored elephant who lives happily among a gray herd, and after trying and failing to hide his true self, he learns that his friends love him for his uniqueness.
Mr McKee wrote to Elmer after witnessing an upsetting remark aimed at his daughter. He wanted to celebrate the differences that he believed made the world so rich – differences in color, accents, but also size, shape and way of dressing.
The message that comes from the book is as relevant today as it ever was.
David has written and illustrated 29 original Elmer books, and collectively they have been translated into over 60 languages. Over 10 million copies have been sold.
In a statement to The Times Tavistock Primary School, he said: ‘David McKee was a wonderful children’s author and illustrator. Her books are regularly used for story reading and as part of wider curriculum projects at Tavistock Primary and Nursery School. the way he was able to highlight feelings of isolation, as in Not Now Bernard or what it feels like to be different from others as in his Elmer stories, are perfect texts to teach children these complex emotions.
“The Elmer that we designed and decorated as a school in 2019 as part of the Elmer Project occupies a prominent place in our school library and is a constant reminder of David McKee’s connection to the region.”
The author studied at Plymouth Art College, was an established illustrator and also had a successful career as an artist.
Elmer’s Big Parade in Plymouth in 2019 to celebrate 30 years since the publication of the first book, was coordinated by St Luke’s Hospice in conjunction with Wild in Art and Andersen Press, Elmer’s publisher. Some 40 1.1m-tall multicolored elephants were spread across Plymouth, from the seafront at The Hoe, through the town center and up to the Royal William Yard and up Mount Edgcumbe.
The Young Elmers were part of an educational program in which 25 schools designed and decorated their own Elmers. Tavistock Main Primary School and St Peter’s Primary School were both involved. The elephants were exposed to Mount Edgcumbe before returning to schools to feed.
One of the 1.1m tall Elmers from the Anniversary Parade also took pride of place at the head of the 2019 Tavistock Carnival procession.
Lion member Steve Grummitt said Mr McKee’s association with Tavistock was not well known and so in 2019 Elmer was brought into the carnival.
“Everyone knows Elmer’s books, but few knew that the author was from Tavistock and that I was one of them. Thanks to Elmer’s great parade and carnival of the same year, many more people know about it now.
“I was very sad to learn of Mr. McKee’s passing last week.”
Andersen Press announced the news on its website. He said: “It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of David McKee, beloved children’s author and illustrator and creator of the iconic children’s books Elmer, Not Now, Bernard and Mr Benn.
‘David died surrounded by his family, following a short illness in the south of France, where he spent a lot of time in recent years; he was 87 years old. Everyone at Andersen Press hopes that his spirit will endure for many generations through his joyful and heartfelt stories.
His longtime editor Klaus Flugge said: “I am devastated by the sudden death of my best friend David McKee. He was as close to Andersen Press as I was. He was there from the very beginning and essential to the origin of the company.
“He became great friends with everyone he met; collaborators, authors and illustrators.
“He was a singular voice and a shining light in children’s books that highlighted inclusivity, diversity, and parts of our world that aren’t always present in children’s publishing. His classic books have become part of the canon of children’s literature, and we hope they will be enjoyed by children for many generations to come.
Mr McKee received an honorary doctorate from the Open University of Plymouth College of Art in 2011. He was named the winner of the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020 and also won Illustrator of the Year at the British Book Awards of that year.
Speaking to BookTrust in 2020, he said: “Children’s books can help change attitudes and help to help children shape their worldview.
“Picture books are a child’s first glimpse into the world of art and in some ways, especially with some of my books, the illustrations are actually more important than the story.”