David McKee, the author and illustrator of the iconic children’s books Elmer, Not Now, Bernard and Mr Benn, has died aged 87, his publisher has said.
The author and illustrator died surrounded by family in the south of France following a short illness. After a lifetime of travelling the world, he and his partner Bakhta, a French-Algerian art dealer, had been dividing their time between London and Provence in recent years.
His long time publisher Klaus Flugge said he was devastated by the news. “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.”
He added: “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.”
McKee was born in Tavistock, Devon, and studied at Plymouth Art College. His first book Two Can Toucan was published in 1964 by Flugge when he worked at Abelard-Schuman. When Flugge founded Andersen Press in 1976, McKee moved with him and went on to create more than 50 books for the publisher.
McKee wrote and illustrated 29 original stories about the beloved multi-coloured patchwork elephant Elmer, the first of which was published in 1968. The books remain one of the most widely read children’s book series of all time: more than 10m copies have been sold, and they have been translated into more than 60 languages.
The themes of inclusivity, celebration and friendship that run through the Elmer stories led the Guardian to hail Elmer as an LGBT hero in 2014. “I never intended to do that,” McKee said in an interview at the time, “but I suspect there are subconscious processes at work I only discover later.”
As well as writing and illustrating children’s books, McKee had a successful career as a fine artist, and as a co-creator of animated TV programmes including Mr Benn, based on his series of books about an explorer’s magical adventures. The series celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
McKee was named the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement award winner in 2020. “David McKee understands the importance of always paying attention to children and what he gives them is first-rate,” said chair of judges Nicolette Jones when announcing his win.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2020, McKee said: “I’ve often said I think the air is full of stories – you just have to have the right receiver and you pick them up.”