30 Years of Elmer
By Luke Rix-Standing
In Elmer's first ever adventure, our elephant hero is feeling rather depressed. Resplendent in technicolor squares, Elmer stands out from the grey, monochrome herd, which leaves him feeling lonely and uncomfortable. It's only when he paints himself grey that he realises: The things that made him different were also the things that made him special. The paint is washed off by rain, and the elephants rejoice at having Elmer back, in all his vibrant glory.
Today, the children's section of any bookstore is filled with parables on prejudice, tolerance and diversity, but when Elmer was first put to page, these topics weren't nearly so a la mode. Though publisher Andersen is celebrating the 30th birthday of Elmer's storybook series, he first hit shelves via Dobson Books in 1968, putting his true lifespan at more than half a century. "For me, it was just about accepting who you are," says Elmer's creator David McKee. "I didn't have any particular axe to grind. We all have differences and sometime they're hard to accept, but we have to." The timelessness of this message is probably what's helped Elmer survive and thrive down the decades. As each new generation reads the books, McKee says he receives all the same letters (and they are all letters - he does not use email).
"I've had a lot of mail from people who are a bit different…" says McKee. "They really take to Elmer as their book, which is fantastic." A tale of tolerance For a multi-coloured, fictional elephant, Elmer can be surprisingly political. In Elmer And The Hippos, a tribe of hippopotamuses move into the local river, sparking enmity from its elephant incumbents. After a little detective work, Elmer discovers that the hippos' own river has been dammed by rocks - they didn't want to move at all - and befriends them to solve the problem together.
"I was obviously very conscious of immigration," says McKee. "It's a big subject and we get emotional about it, but most of us are immigrants. I remember reading about families in trucks coming into England - they couldn't speak the language and were in horrific conditions. What on Earth were they running from - I think that's where the problem is." It was a work of unusual candour for McKee, who has always insisted that his books are innocent stories that should be understood as such. "I guess if you've got something to say then that's going to come out," he admits, "and I suppose I probably do."
Not all Elmer's iconography stems from McKee. In recent years, the elephant's celebration of difference and rainbow colour scheme has seen him embraced as a symbol by the LGBT community. "I didn't realise he was being used that way," says McKee. "Your characters are like your children - at a certain point they just go off and live their lives. I can't dictate what Elmer does - as long as he's not doing any harm."
Though the character's connotations are now the preserve of the public, McKee has kept close creative control of Elmer himself. Long resistant to a film deal - "I wasn't keen, I felt he wasn't mature or established enough" - McKee chose instead to make his books as visual as possible. "It was the image that came first," recalls McKee, "because I drew a lot of elephants - either for myself, for jokes, or for the press. My paintings at the time were all squared up like Paul Klee, and one day for some reason I drew the squares on the elephant."
A former student at the Plymouth College of Art, McKee's roots lay in paint not print, and as a young man he paid his way selling cartoons to newspapers, including Punch and the Times Educational Supplement. "At college, I was influenced by the Fauves painters," recalls McKee. "Matisse, Derain and all that crowd. That also played a big part in how he looked." As it happens, McKee's aversion to the silver screen is on the wane: "Recently I've thought that if it's going to happen at some point, I might as well be a part of it. Elmer feels big enough now that he should be able to survive." An elephant not to forget He'd already written several children's book with a host of colourful characters (he's rarely asked about them - much to his chagrin), by the time Elmer debuted in the late-Sixties. The patchwork elephant promptly became popular, but when the publisher moved and scaled back production, Elmer was left out of print. A full 20 years later he returned to the shelves under Andersen, and was a near-instant hit. "I made sure the rights were clear and re-did it," recalls McKee.
"The first version was 48 pages and had a long preamble - I chopped it down to 32 plus end papers and used more watercolour and crayons." Another 25 storybooks followed Elmer's initial outing - with a 26th set for release later this year - alongside a host of pop-up books, board books and merchandise. With more than eight-million book sales to his name, he's been translated in 50 different languages.
Elmer struck surprise gold in Japan, where his popularity led to a line of Elmer-themed clothing. As McKee grew older, so too did his elephant. "I'm 84 now", he says, "and Elmer is a bit more rounded. He was more child-like at the beginning, more inclined to jokes." Aside from his first story ("everything came from that one"), one other adventure sticks particularly in McKee's mind. In Elmer And The Lost Teddy, our patchwork pachyderm hunts for - spoiler alert - a teddy bear misplaced by a youngster on a picnic. "At the end, Elmer points out that you don't have to be different to be special," says McKee, "because I felt at that point people were leaning too much on difference. "We're living through a 'look at me' age, when cars drive down the road going 'boom, boom, boom' through the windows and everyone has a different way of cutting their hair. You don't need to try to be different, we just all are."