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Elmer Author David McKee On Reluctant Readers And Patchwork Elephants

14/08/2014 17:03 | Updated 20 May 2015

Elmer author David McKee on embracing difference, reluctant readers and patchwork elephants

David McKee has written and illustrated more than 50 picture books including the much-loved classics Elmer, Not Now Bernard and Mr Benn.

David is also well-known for his illustrations in books including Michael Bond's Paddington Bear and Forrest Wilson's Supergran.

Elmer was originally published in 1968, but went out of print when the publishing company closed down, and the patchwork elephant didn't make a return to bookshelves until 1989 when it was published by Andersen Press.

Due to demand from children for more installments from the life of the elephant who learnt to embrace his differences, Andersen went on to publish a further 21 Elmer stories, which tackle some big issues including prejudice, conservation and fear.

Over seven million copies of the Elmer books have been sold worldwide and they have been translated into 50 languages.The latest title in the series Elmer and the Monster was published this year (2014).

David is a father of three (one daughter, two sons) and grandfather of three - also a girl and two boys.

David talked to Parentdish on the 25th anniversary of Elmer being published by Andersen Press

When you wrote the first Elmer book did you have any idea that it would become so popular around the world?

No. I didn't even consider that it would go worldwide. One always hopes that a book is going to be liked by as many people as possible, but when you write or illustrate you're more involved with what you're doing than with thoughts of what will happen to it in the future. I didn't even have any idea that it would become an ongoing series.

Do you get a lot of fan mail from children?

I get less fan mail now than I used to, because I don't do email. I do still get some very nice letters and nice drawings, but children are modern and I'm not. They like the instant reply of email, but I like to think about the reply for a bit longer than the time it takes to send an email.

So you reply to your written fan mail?

Oh yes! I always write back by hand. Sometimes letters may not get replied to by accident, because when you get a pile of papers occasionally one may get lost, but I normally reply to all of them.

In the past I also used to visit schools and the children would often ask me interesting questions like, 'How far can you go on your skateboard?'

Meaning: 'Do you want to know how far I can go on MY skateboard?'

But the best question I was ever asked was in Amsterdam. A girl asked me: 'Do you eat biscuits in the bath?'

I said: 'Well, no I don't.' And then I realised she was didn't want me to say that, so I said, 'Do you eat biscuits in the bath?'

And she said 'No I don't.'

And I said, "Would you like to eat biscuits in the bath?'

And she said, 'Yes, I would!'

She wanted to go home to her mother and say David Mckee eats biscuits in the bath, why can't I?!

The first Elmer book conveys the messages that it's ok to be different - where did the inspiration behind that come from?

It all started with a drawing of Elmer. I paint as well write, and my paintings at the time were influenced by Paul Klee and his square paintings. I also drew a lot of cartoons for newspapers and I often drew elephants, because they're nice to draw.

One day I squared up an elephant and after I had the image, the name came through alliteration: elephant Elmer.

Then I thought: Well he's different, but does he like to be different? People like him to be different but perhaps he doesn't? And the story sort of developed in that way.

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I think it's important for children to know it's ok to be different, but they also need to know it's alright to be the same too. That's why I wrote Elmer and the Lost Teddy.

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In that story I wanted to show that you don't have to be different to be special, I think we're all special and sometimes I think people try too hard to be different, when there's no need because we're all different already. So just be yourself, which is what Elmer is about.

The first Elmer book ends with 'Elmer Day' when all the elephants decorate themselves in bright designs, and Elmer decorates himself in 'elephant colour'. Did you have a particular date in mind for 'Elmer Day'?

No, I deliberately avoided that, because if anybody wants an Elmer Day, they can have one whenever they'd like.

Schools sometimes have 'Elmer Days' and that's why I wrote the story Elmer's Special Day where the other animals can also come if they wear masks, because I thought then children can come to their school's 'Elmer Day' in masks.

What inspired your new book Elmer and the Monster?

It was inspired by the unjustified fears people have. People are often afraid of things that aren't actually as frightening as they think they are.

When it came to drawing the monster I was inspired by my grandson Blake, who we often call Bloo-Bloo. So I used Bloo-Bloo as the name of the monster.

I actually have a feeling Bloo-Bloo may one day reappear, because there's something I quite like about him.

Do you often read to your grandchildren?

I drew a lot with my granddaughter and now she's nearly 18 and about to go to art college next year. With the boys, unfortunately not, because we don't live that close. But they do get a lot of stories from their parents.

All that story business is pretty important for children to develop their own imagination and their own work.

Do you think it's important for parents to read to children from a young age?

Oh yes. I think the presence of books is essential, because once you can read, the world of information is open to you. Not to mention all the fantastic books that there are in the world just waiting to be read.

It's interesting, children's picture books are the one type of book that is shared by adults and children, and they're a pretty important type of book, because it's with them that children get the enthusiasm for books that will make them into lifelong readers.

What's your advice for encouraging reluctant readers?

Only for parents to find picture books that they like as well, and read them to children. Then they'll pick up books with enthusiasm.

Picture books don't usually have a lot of text, and the images are important for getting children engaged in the story.

It's about taking time with children. There is a tendency to do everything on screens now. I suppose in a lot of ways, screens are replacing the printed book, but there's something nice about a book. The physical feel, the smell, turning the pages, the fact that if you pick it up upside down, you have to turn it around and all that. You're quite involved with a book. There is still a magic about books, I think, and it's a shame to not be part of that.

Seeing physical picture books can also inspire children to write and draw themselves.

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​When children ask me 'When did you start writing?' I say, 'When did you start writing?' To let them realise that they are already authors and artists.

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Did you read a lot as a child?

We didn't have many books because it was during the war, but everybody seemed to tell stories. My mother was a good story teller. When my father recounted things it was like a story. They told stories at school.

But the stories that I liked especially were the Aesop's Fables and the original Winnie the Pooh stories. They were favourites and still are.

You also illustrate the Paddington Bear books – will you watch the upcoming film?

Oh I will definitely go and see it. I actually go to the cinema almost every day and I'm really looking forward to seeing that when it comes out. He's such a nice gentle bear.

What does the future hold for Elmer?

I've no idea, I don't know what it holds for me either!

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