What we’re reading: Elmer by David McKee

One of the most precious things about small children is their lack of self-consciousness.

There’s a real purity of spirit about that short few years before they start desperately trying to blend in with the crowd. They like what they like, they do what they enjoy and they dress is whatever feels comfortable. A tutu and wellies with a superhero cape – why not?!

Then at some point, it’s all about being the same as the rest of their peers – and all you want to convince them of is the how their uniqueness is their strength.

It is this important message which is at the heart of David McKee‘s classic, Elmer. The book is 30 this year (and the story is actually 51 years old!), but remains as relevant as ever – possibly even more so, in an age of social media, celebrity worship and Brexit.

The forward to the special 30th anniversary edition of Elmer.

McKee – the author and illustrator who also created Mr Benn and Not Now, Bernard – has always had a knack for dealing with sensitive issues in a way that little ones can understand without shying away from the truth.

And with Elmer, we have an early exploration of the themes of diversity, with our lead character learning that his friends love him because of his differences not in spite of them, and he has no need to change himself to match the rest of the herd.

Apparently the author was inspired to write the story after overhearing a young boy make a racial comment about his daughter, whose mother was Anglo-Indian, as they walked down the street in Devon.

One of the things that touches me about Elmer is the fact he has a cheerful and optimistic nature, always on hand to make the others laugh, but that even this upbeat character is plagued by self-doubt behind the smiles – something we should all bear in mind when we look at others.

Indeed, such is his conviction that he needs to look like all the other elephants, he paints himself grey using some berries and tries to merge back in without being noticed.

Of course, Elmer isn’t like the rest and they quickly recognise his distinctive chuckle, before the rain comes down and reveals his true, glorious colours – much to the delight of his pals.

Such is their mirth, and their affection for their pal, that they declare that they will celebrate Elmer’s Day once a year – and this takes place today, 25 May!

This isn’t the end of the story. McKee has written more than 40 Elmer stories, exploring themes of friendship, ageing and competition. The Guardian has even hailed the elephant as an LGBT hero because of his respect for difference.

Aside from these messages, we just adore the McKee’s quirky retro style of illustration and the multicoloured world he conjures up.

It’s a place we can’t wait to visit every time we open the cover. If only the real world was a bit more like Elmer’s.

Elmer (30th anniversary collector’s edition) by David McKee – includes a foreword from the author and Elmer print. £14.99 (hardback), Andersen Press. There is also a paperback edition priced at £6.99. Buy from Amazon

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