A Farewell to the Picture Book Greats: David McKee - by Garry Parsons

 With the recent passing of David McKee it felt only right to pay a personal tribute to a remarkable picture book creator.


McKee's most famous story, Elmer, with his colourful iconic patchwork was first published in 1968 by Dobson Publishing and then re-released in 1989 by Andersen Press under the helm of Klaus Flugge and has since become a household name. McKee wrote and illustrated 29 Elmer books sparking a whole range of board books, toys and clothing.  
Flugge and McKee became firm friends. '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.' 
McKee enjoyed drawing on letters to his friends and would often correspond with Flugge decorating the envelope as well. Flugge would pin these to the wall in his office at Andersen Press where other illustrators who were visiting would see them. Satoshi Kitamura, Tony Ross, Posy Simmons and Axel Scheffler, to name a few, began sending decorated letters and both Flugge and McKee's collections grew.


Satoshi Kitamura has compiled a collection of decorated envelopes which includes many of McKee's drawings to Flugge in "Efuto" published by Foil. 
Envelopes decorated in this way are known as 'efuto' in Japan which translates simply as 'picture envelope'
Working with King Rollo Films, McKee co-created iconic animated programmes for the BBC including Mr Benn, about the eponymous explorer who
through a magic costume shop went on a series of fantastical adventures.

' I wanted Mr Benn to be Mr Everybody. Bowler hats were more common in the
early 1970s. There was a respectability to them, plus Charlie Chaplin
and Laurel and Hardy are favourites of mine. Mr Benn went off on
adventures according to whatever costume he tried on. I was heavily
influenced by fables, because of their apparent simplicity. I like
stories with a moral, that have a reason for being there – I don’t like a
character to wake up and realise it was all a dream. That’s why I
introduced the souvenir that Mr Benn always takes back with him, to say
that it really did happen.'



Not Now Bernard was first published in 1980 and has never been out of print. Controversial on it's first publication and banned by some libraries for being violent, Not Now Bernard has become a classic. I remember being shocked and thrilled reading this for first time. The illustration showing the monster holding up all that is left of Bernard was a dark delight and a symbol I included in my own illustration of a boy who is swallowed by his 'Green Eyed Monster' in G.E.M by Jane Clarke. All that remains is a shoe!

But the picture book that epitomises David McKee's flair and brilliance for me is Two Can Toucan.

Two Can Toucan was McKee's first picture book published in 1964 by Flugge whilst he worked at Abelard-Schuman. It was then re-illustrated and re-published in 1985 by Andersen Press.
Back in it's original form it was republished again to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Andersen Press. 

My copy is a little tired and worn but for good reason. Toucan's journey starts in the jungle with all the other creatures but heads to the town to seek his fortune. 

McKee's wonderful illustration of the jungle is a page I return to often.

In town he searches for a job he is good at and tries out a few empolyment opportunities. This comical scene of the dull office commute includes everyone wearing Mr Benn's characteristic bowler hat. 

He finally he discovers he is good at carrying things, cans of paint in particular.


I asked Picture Den members, Moira Butterfield and Pippa Goodhart for their insights and enjoyments of David McKee's work.
'I love the artwork and the child-friendly tone of David McKee. I recently worked on an Elmer book commentary for children with sight conditions, and that involved me looking very closely at the illustrations to describe their effect. The Elmer backgrounds are so rich and full of life. I’d say joyous. And his writing was absolutely pitched from a child’s point of view. No patronising. No trying to ram in some parental moral treatise. Just looking at life at the shoulder of a child.'   Moira Butterfield
When I had just started as a young bookseller in Heffers Children’s Bookshop in 1982, David McKee was the first famous author/illustrator I met. He launched his ‘I Hate My Teddy Bear’ picture book in the shop, and of course I bought a copy and he signed it.   Pippa GoodHart

'I worked with a friend in Heffers Children’s Bookshop who was lucky enough to get to keep all the originals of the shop's catalogue covers. Heffers were good at wining and dining people and asking for favours! 


The spirit of David McKee's work will, without doubt, live on to inspire and delight many more generations of children to come.
                                                             David McKee 1935 - 2022.
Garry Parsons is an illustrator of children's books. His work can be seen here
Follow Garry on twitter and instagram @icandrawdinos

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