We’re sorry to report the passing of children’s book author and artist David McKee, the creator of several well-known characters including Mr Benn, Elmer the Patchwork Elephant and Not Now, Bernard.
He was also a fine artist, his paintings often exhibited, an aspect of his work perhaps overlooked by some.
In a statement, his publisher, Andersen Press, announced the Devon-born actor had died surrounded by his family, following a short illness in the South of France, where he has spent a lot of time in recent years; he was 87.
“All at Andersen Press hope his spirit lives on for many more generations through his joyful, heartfelt stories.”
David’s most famous creation is Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, which is now published in more than 50 languages and has its own successful global merchandise programme.
David was born in Devon and studied at Plymouth Art College. His work allowed him to travel the world, spending extensive periods in Barcelona, Nice, Paris and Italy. Most recently he was happy spending time between his home in London and in Provence with his partner of many years, Bakhta.
In the early part of his career he regularly drew and sold humorous drawings to magazines and newspapers such as The Times Educational Supplement, Punch and the Reader’s Digest.
“I was very friendly at the time with Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman and there was Frank Dickens and Barry Fantoni was around,” he told comic creator Sarah McIntyre back in 2009, in a fascinating interview spanning both his painting and his many children’s books.
His drawings were influenced especially by Saul Steinberg and Andre Francois, “But it’s funny,” he told Sarah, “I used to absolutely adore Paul Klee. And the more I drew like Paul Klee and looked at his drawing, the more I drew like Steinberg! So I knew that Steinberg had looked pretty much at Paul Klee. But there have been so many influences. Going back to art college, Brueghel and Rembrandt and people like that.”
David’s first book Two Can Toucan was published in 1964 by Klaus Flugge whilst he worked at Abelard-Schuman. Once Klaus established Andersen Press in 1976, David became a mainstay of the publisher, creating over 50 books for them.
Elmer the Patchwork Elephant
His most famous story, Elmer, was first published in 1968 by Dobson Publishing, but after being re-illustrated and re-released by Flugge’s Andersen Press in 1989 it became the household name it is today.
Elmer remains one of the most iconic and widely read children’s book series of all time, selling over 10 million copies. David wrote and illustrated 29 original Elmer books, and collectively they have been translated into more than 60 languages with new novelty books, toys and clothing available around the world based on David’s beloved character.
The themes of inclusivity, celebration and friendship that run through the Elmer stories are a testament to David’s character and outlook on life, and he leaves an incredible legacy of acceptance for children around the world.
As well as a children’s book creator David had a successful career as a fine artist, and through King Rollo Films co-created some of the most iconic animated programmes in history including Mr Benn, based on David’s series of books, about the eponymous explorer who through a magic costume shop went on a series of fantastical adventures. The series celebrated its 50th anniversary since it premiered on BBC, in 2021.
David told Sarah McIntyre there was a Mr Benn he wanted to do in comic form, called Super Ben. “But I actually never did the book. The idea was slightly… not anti-green, but where everybody had their plants and their trees and their terraces, and Mr Baddie had produced something to spray that would make these things grow, so the plants took over the city and it all got out of hand. And Mr Benn comes in and brings things back to balance. But I never did that one.”
Not Now, Bernard
For many, his brilliant one off story, Not Now, Bernard, including myself, is a classic children’s book – funny and poignant in equal measure.
“What I’ve always wanted is for people to read the books I’ve worked on and hopefully like them,” David said of his work in an interview in 2020. “I wanted to sell enough of them to live off but at the beginning I never thought that I would make a living off books. I just did the book because I wanted to.
“It’s a bit like painting,” he continued. “A book is like a painting in some ways in that you can work over all of it: you can change something at the beginning and right at the end.”
If the importance of reading, he said in 2018, “Once you can read, the door is open to so much information, stories, and escape. It’s something you can do at your own pace and privately, and with so many and such a variety of books available, there’s something for everybody. And, reading is the best help for improving their own writing.
He also offered this advice to parents who are struggling to get their children to read more.
Don’t put too much pressure on it, just read with the child and discuss the book,” he suggested. “I would especially say keep reading picture books for as long as possible; read the images as well as the words – picture books are not just for young children, they’re just another form of book! Criticizing children who read comics is not helpful, readers usually try to read everything.”
His long time publisher Klaus Flugge has said: “I am devastated by the sudden death of my best friend David McKee. He was as close to Andersen Press as I am. He was there from the very beginning and essential to the origin of the company. He became great friends with everyone he encountered; staff, authors and illustrators alike.
“His was a singular voice and a shining light in children’s books that highlighted inclusivity, diversity and parts of our world that are not always present in publishing for children.
“His classic books include Elmer, Two Monsters and Not Now, Bernard, amongst many, many others, have become part of the canon of children’s literature, and we hope will be enjoyed by children for many more generations to come.
“Not only was I fortunate to be his publisher, he was also a wonderful friend, and he will be missed by many more people than he could ever imagine. My thoughts, and those of everyone at Andersen Press, are with his family and many friends around the world.”
David was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Open University at Plymouth College of Art in 2011. He was named the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award winner in 2020 and also won Illustrator of the Year at that year’s British Book Awards.
On David’s win BookTrust CEO Diana Gerald said: “David McKee and his patchwork elephant Elmer are synonymous with childhood and loved by children and parents alike. BookTrust is delighted to present David with its Lifetime Achievement Award after such an incredible contribution to children’s literature that crosses cultures, generations and languages.”
Speaking to BookTrust in 2020 David said, “Children’s books can contribute to changing attitudes and are instrumental in helping children shape their view of the world. Picture books are 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.”
Advice for aspiring artists
Asked in 2020 what inspired his illustrations, he told Writers and Artists: “What you see. You’re stealing all the time. You see a tree or a flower with strange leaves and you think ‘Ah, I can use it’. It’s yours. That flower could be growing in somebody’s garden or it could be part of a drawing.
“Stuff’s there, just use it. Even art. Like Picasso said: If there’s something to steal I’ll steal it. Obviously I don’t think that I’m stealing things in that way, but I do think art isn’t sacred. It’s there to use.”
He also offered this advice to aspiring artists: “The only advice I can offer is if you really want to do it, you have to really want to do it. And if you want to do it, get all the pleasure you can out of it. Don’t look to be rich and famous. If that happens to come along, the ‘rich’ part is great.”