Elmer The Patchwork Elephant remains one of the most iconic and widely read children’s book series of all time, selling over 10 million copies worldwide since it was first published by Andersen Press in 1989. Written and illustrated by celebrated children’s author and artist David McKee, the Elmer books have been translated into more than 50 languages and now new books, toys and clothing add to the world of Elmer the Patchwork Elephant.
We caught up with David McKee who penned a number of children’s classics including King Rollo, Mr Benn, Not Now Bernard before the stage show comes to The Lowry, Tue 19 – Thu 21 February, to celebrate its 30th Birthday, to find out why Elmer continues to be popular for young readers and audiences today.
Why do you think Elmer resonates with generation after generation of readers?
Well, it’s interesting because every time anything does that, and continues to resonate, people always ask the same question! If we knew what it was then we’d just repeat it and do it all the time, you just get it right sometimes. I think it’s just an old-fashioned story with a bright image.
What messages do you feel children take away from Elmer and the Elmer series?
I’ve absolutely no idea! As far as Elmer is concerned, the stories have usually got a moral feeling, a direct moral. We talked about the book Elmer and the Hippos recently and that was absolutely a reaction to the immigration and the reaction to it, and, you know, this business of ‘why do they come?’ – because they’d rather be at home having a drink with their mates than risking life and limb going to a place where they don’t speak the language, terrible weather and all the rest of it! It’s a bit the same with the hippos. The hippos have a problem, and Elmer says ‘let’s help them sort out their problem.’
The bit about his differences in the original Elmer story – it’s not so much about individuality, it’s more about accepting who you are, realising who you are. I think that’s what’s great about Elmer.
I’d say that for myself, I knew who my grandparents were, my parents, uncles and aunties and all of that – you can’t have any funny ideas about who you are! You can’t be pretentious. You just have to accept that’s who you are and get on with it, and I think that that is the kind of thing that comes up as well.
Elmer has always been alright with the herd, and with the other animals. They were pleased to see him, “good morning Elmer!” they’d say. But he was more noticeable, that was all.
Was there anything in particular about an elephant that appealed to you?
I just liked drawing elephants! At the time I was drawing cartoons for newspapers, and every now and again an elephant would creep in one of those. There’s just something about the shape I think, and of course it ended up decorated, as there was enough space on there to decorate!
Was there anyone who inspired your style of artwork?
There were loads of people that influenced me. The Fauves influenced me a lot for colour, the Cubists for their various points of view at the same time. For style, Paul Klein especially, and then after Paul Klein I found Steinberg and thought he was one of the gods!
What are your favourite books from your childhood?
They’re still my favourites now, in fact, and those are the stories of Winnie the Pooh, House at Pooh Corner and all of those stories. Especially the version read on tape by Alan Bennett, he is absolutely incredible with all of those voices. He’s absolutely got that calm of Pooh, the nervousness of Piglet, the grumpiness of Eeyore. That was read to me when I was very young by a teacher, and later when I found the rest they’ve remained at the top. Also, Treasure Island, which was given to us – they read the first part of Treasure Island to us at art class and asked us to draw the opening part. Those two books have remained very much my favourites.
Did you always want to write as well as illustrate?
No, I always told stories, I come from a background of storytellers. I think people always just used to tell stories, teachers used to tell stories. My mother was a storyteller, and when my father said ‘what’s going on?’ and especially when he came home during the war, it was recounted like a story. When I went to the Scouts, somebody came in and told us about all the local ghosts, those were stories. Eventually I just started telling stories, first to myself – even at college people would ask me “tell us a story!” In fact my book Two Can Toucan was a story I told in college that I eventually went back to.
In terms of the new stage show, how do you feel about that? Is it exciting to see Elmer come from the page to the stage?
Nicely rhymed there! It’s interesting more than exciting, I always say that your books and your characters are just like your children – they really are. You try to protect them but they’ll do things anyway that you can’t keep them out of, and they surprise you from time to time! You think ‘oh I never knew he could do that’. You see one of your sons doing things with skateboards, which you’ve only seen people doing on television and you think ‘wow!’
And it’s a bit like that when you see Elmer?
Yeah, when you suddenly see Elmer on a skateboard it’s a bit like that!
In terms of theatre, can you remember the first thing that you saw at the theatre and did it have any impact on you when you were a child?
There were of course local shows, but at the end of the war especially there were one or two things like magicians that would come and do street concerts, that was pretty close to theatre. I remember George Formby in theatre in Plymouth, in the Palace Theatre there. That was quite fun. Things like that, I suppose pantomime probably. I don’t particularly remember it other than another day out which could have been anywhere really.
‘Elmer The Patchwork Elephant’ is brought to The Lowry by Selladoor Family. The show will run at the Salford venue Tue 19 – Thu 21 February 2019. For more information and tickets visit the website or call box office on 0843 208 6000.