‘If I’m feeling down, I get out Elmer': David McKee on what it's like to create an inspirational little elephant for children

Published on: 24 May 2019 Author: Anna McKerrow

We chatted to legendary author-illustrator David McKee about Elmer the elephant and his own inspirations and favourite children's books.

What were your favourite books as a child?

Winnie-the-Pooh was first read to me in primary school. The wonderful story of the footprints that get more and more as they go around the copse – that was the first Winnie-the-Pooh I’d ever heard. Then I heard the Alan Bennett version of him reading Winnie-the-Pooh – it might have been The House at Pooh Corner, I can’t remember the title, but there’s something magic about that version of the book. I just love those stories; I love the peace, their depth, and life is just so like it should be in those books. They’re still my favourite stories! 

The other book which I always quote is Treasure Island, which I think is so perfect. It scares the life out of me – all that business with Blind Pugh and the Black Spot. Dear me! Its hero is a young man, and there are such characters; just a great story. It’s hard to beat that! They were read to me as a young child in school. We didn’t have many books, but what we had was storytellers. My mother told stories; at school, the teachers told stories; in the Scouts later, when I was about 11, someone used to come and tell stories every week and what he used to tell were ghost stories about the local area. 

I was brought up in Tavistock in South Devon and it could probably compete with New York for spiritual movements: it’s certainly got a lot of ghosts and ghost stories. My father, when he talked about what was going on in the war, told it like a story. So it was simple – I just started telling myself stories. There was nobody else there, so I started telling myself stories. Later at college, people would say, ‘Tell us a story, Mac!’ It’s like singing blues or something, you just jump in, it just rolls. You’re the storyteller but also the audience. At the beginning you don’t know where it’s going, and it’s wonderful. It’s not complicated, starting stories.

What was the inspiration for Elmer? 

I liked drawing elephants at that time for cartoons – I was drawing a lot of cartoons for newspapers, and elephants are just so nice, you know, just such a nice image. I was painting, and my paintings were very often squared up. I was very influenced by Paul Klee; the drawing as well, the fine line that bites, and influenced by his thinking a bit, his attitude to drawing: he said drawing is taking a line for a walk.

The joy of that taking a line for a walk is fantastic: when it’s really going and you can feel the pen bite into the paper, feel the air on the back of your neck, a little bit of sweat comes under your eyes, it’s great! So I was drawing elephants anyway, and painting often square paintings; one day, for some reason or other, I squared up an elephant and put the colours on the elephant. 

After the elephant was there, the name came. Elmer seemed to be the right kind of name, and after the name, the story came! So people say ‘Do you draw the pictures first, or the story, or what comes first?’ But there are no rules; sometimes it’s the story and sometimes it’s the image. With Elmer’s case, the image was there before the story.

For me, I was just writing a story. But important to the story was the fact that they recognised Elmer before the rain came and washed off the colours; his character was not dependent on his colours. He was Elmer; they knew it was Elmer even though he didn’t look like Elmer.

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How does it feel to be the creator of such a phenomenally successful series?

In a way I stay as far as I can outside all that, because a lot of the stuff that goes on I realise I have missed; they’ve perhaps been shown to me in some state or another, but it’s probably bigger than I realise! I’m inclined to be a bit of a hermit anyway and not keep up with all that kind of thing, but, yeah, when somebody says it’s in 64 countries, it’s great! Because all those children reading, and I hope liking, the same story... And then later they learn to be different; we have to be taught to be different, apparently. 

The other characters are interesting: Eldo, for example, was based on an Ashanti ring of mine. It’s quite a big ring and you wear it on your finger; it’s gold with a diamond decoration, which is how I’ve drawn Elspo. Eldo is short for Eldorado Golden Elephant, obviously…

The idea for the grandfather was just something I liked, and I made him do things with Elmer that my father did with my children. Super El, my grandsons would dress up as Superman or Batman, and their costumes had to be correct! If there was something wrong with them, they’d get upset, you know, say: ‘Batman couldn’t go out like this!’ It wouldn’t be allowed. So that set that in.

Zelda, with the El in the middle, was based a lot on my mother, because she had gotten deaf, so you’d say something to her, like: ‘Is Mrs Graham still living on the corner?’ Because she’d seen something or other, she’d say ‘No, don’t let’s go there today, dear, I’m tired of that place.’ What did she hear?! She’d see my face and say, ‘Oh right, what did you say?’ But I thought, I guess a lot of children with older people and deafness are used to that. And the colours are older; they’re colours that my mother would wear a lot, blue and violet. She was called Violet, in fact.

And Rose, I think she came because I’d written the poem at the beginning of that thing: 'There once was an elephant named Rose / Who blushed from her head to her toes.' It’s that one that’s quoted at the beginning of the book. I’d written that, I think, and then the story came afterwards. Also, the idea that it’s quite nice when you can accept one – when Rose was on her own, there was no problem. And then later – well, there’s still no problem in the book, because I don’t like problems like that. But later, there’s a whole herd of elephants that are that colour.

What about children's reactions to Elmer?

It’s just something which is a bit special. A couple of weeks ago, I had a letter from a girl of 14 who at the age of four was given Elmer, and she was specially tall. She was too tall for her age while very young. Now the others are catching her up. She said she was different, but it was only Elmer that saved her. In the end, she says: ‘If I’m feeling down, I get out Elmer; Elmer saved me.’

You know, when you get letters like that – it’s nothing to do with me. It’s to do with Elmer. I’m just lucky to be the one that put him there, really.

Watch along as David McKee reads from Elmer

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