David (John) McKee Biography (1935-)
British author, illustrator, and filmmaker David McKee has been described as a "contemporary master of the children's parable" by Listener reviewer William Henry Holmes. Holmes' praise has been echoed by other reviewers, who cite McKee as a prolific contributor to the picture-book genre, his works considered unusual, amusing, and even thought-provoking. Focusing specifically on a preschool and elementary-grade readership, McKee's works include picture books, stories, and he has also illustrated a large assortment of books by other readers. In addition, he has written scripts for television series based on his characters.
McKee is well known in his native England as the creator of series books featuring Mr. Benn, an unassuming banker who becomes involved in fantastic adventures when he tries on different suits of clothes; Elmer, a jovial elephant with a patchwork hide; Melric the Magician, a sorcerer who struggles to maintain his position in a medieval court; and King Rollo, a childish monarch. The author is also known for individual picture books such as Not Now, Bernard and I Hate My Teddy, which have been viewed by some critics as controversial due to their satiric views and surrealistic art. As an illustrator, he is recognized for providing the pictures for series of books by such authors as Michael Bond, Hazel Townson, and David Tinkler as well as titles by L. Frank Baum, Christine Nöstlinger, Ursula Moray Williams, and Robert Swindells, among others. He has also illustrated books by his wife Violet McKee and son Chuck McKee.
McKee's works reflect what Stephanie Nettell called in Books for Keeps "his own quirkily surreal vision of life." He blends reality and fantasy in stories featuring human, animal, and imaginary protagonists that show how easily ordinary life can become extraordinary. Although his works are filled with humor and topics with child appeal, McKee also addresses serious issues, such as the futility of war; the importance of communication, equality, tolerance, and emotional warmth; the development of self-knowledge and self-reliance; and respect for individuality. He is often praised for creating moral tales that demonstrate his insight into both childhood and the human condition. The tone of McKee's books ranges from gentle and lighthearted to darkly humorous and absurdist, and he sometimes ends stories with sudden ironic twists that playfully skew the concept of the happy ending. As a prose stylist, he uses language that is considered simple yet subtle, while his artistic style is both recognizable and accessible. McKee's illustrations, which range from colorful paintings to black-and-white line art, range from delicate drawings to detailed double-page spreads. Often lauded for the smooth interplay between his text and his illustrations, McKee has also been commended for his graphic, contemporary style, his varied use of perspective, and the originality and beauty of his work.
Although some critics have found McKee's books too idiosyncratic and sophisticated for children, most observers acknowledge him as a gifted writer, artist, and humorist whose works are both entertaining and substantive. Gillian Klein, writing in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, called McKee's work "direct and appealing to children. He is on their side," while a reviewer in the Junior Bookshelf claimed: "No one does a funny picture-story better than David McKee."
Born in Devon, England, in 1935, McKee received a degree from the Plymouth College of Art before entering the British Army; he served as an instructor in the Royal Army Educational Corps and earned the rank of sergeant. In 1959 he received a second degree from the Hornsey College of Art and became a freelance painter and illustrator. He began his career by doing cartoons for newspapers and for the satirical magazine Punch.
In 1964 McKee published the first of his books for children, Bronto's Wings, the story of a dinosaur who yearns to fly so that he can join the migrating birds going south for the winter. Writing in Growing Point, Margery Fisher noted that the "eccentric illustrations . . . are most impressive . . . and there are plenty of the tiny details children like to search for in picture books." One of the first books McKee wrote while in college, Two Can Toucan, was published in 1964 and was still in print, with new illustrations by the author, in 2001.
In 1967, McKee published the first installment in his popular "Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. Benn" series. In Mr. Benn, Red Knight, mild-mannered British banker Mr. Benn, who normally wears a conservative black suit topped by a black bowler hat, is transported back in time when he tries on a suit of armor at a costume shop. After rescuing a dragon and riding the beast triumphantly, Benn goes home to dream of more adventures. A reviewer writing in the Junior Bookshelf called Mr. Benn, Red Knight "a most exciting and unusual book," while Gertrude B. Herman claimed in School Library Journal that McKee's "marvelously inventive illustrations" place him "firmly among modern English artists" such as Michael Wildsmith and John Burningham.
Other books recounting the continuing adventures of Mr. Benn after his visit to the costume shop include Big Game Benn, Big Top Benn, and Mr. Benn, Gladiator. In 123456789 Benn McKee describes how the banker finds himself in prison after trying on a convict's uniform. Noting the gloom of the prison and the sad state of its inmates, Mr. Benn solicits the help of head convict Smasher Lagru to transform the facility into a happier place using the prison's paint and the many skills of his fellow inmates. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Selma G. Lanes noted that "the experience, wholly engrossing and humanizing, makes for a refreshingly novel tale," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that McKee's tale contains "such inspired silliness that it could brighten the viewpoint of the most pragmatic computerizer—it could even blow his mind."
In Big Game Benn, our hero is transported to the African jungle after he tries on a hunter's clothes. Posing as a guide, Benn thwarts a group of hunters by appealing to their vanity, having them exchange their guns for cameras. Writing in Growing Point, Margery Fisher called Big Game Benn "a comic statement about conservation" before concluding that McKee lightens his message with his "subtly teasing colour-range and odd perspectives and the offhand brilliance with which he suggests a jungle atmosphere."
One of McKee's most loveable characters was introduced to young readers in 1968, when the author/illustrator published Elmer: The Story of a Patchwork Elephant. In this story the colorful Elmer decides that he wants to be like the other elephants in his herd. When he dyes his multicolored patchwork grey, the other elephants don't recognize him; he also notices that they do not seem as cheerful now that he is without his colorful skin and jokes. After a rain storm washes off the dye, Elmer decides that he is happy in—and with—his own skin, and the other elephants declare a holiday. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly noted that "McKee's gentle humor and love of irony are in full force in this celebration of individuality and laughter," while J. A. Cunliffe wrote in Children's Book News that McKee's colors "have the jostling brilliance of a fairground."
The "Elmer" series, which has also been adapted as a television series airing in Great Britain, has continued to grow in the decades since it was first introduced, and includes such titles as Elmer Again, Elmer and the Lost Teddy Elmer and the Kangaroo, and Elmer and the Hippos. In Elmer Again, Elmer paints all of the other elephants to look just like him, but then realizes the importance of individuality. Writing in the School Librarian, Carol Hill stated that "just to open this book is to be confronted with a kaleidoscope of shape and colour" and went on to predict that Elmer Again "is so delightful that it will be read again and again."
Elmer and the Kangaroo finds the little pachyderm on a rescue mission: to see what is distressing a kangaroo in the jungle. Learning that his new friend bounces but not jump, Elmer explains that there is little difference between bouncing and jumping, inspiring Kangaroo with enough confidence to enter the upcoming jumping contest. Another problem is neatly solved in Elmer and the Lost Teddy when the little elephant helps Baby Elephant track down a lost favorite toy. Noting the illustrations colored in "jelly bean hues," Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper wrote that "fans of the series will welcome Elmer's return."
In 1994, McKee also created the board books Elmer's Colours, Elmer's Day, Elmer's Friends, and Elmer's Weather, for the youngest Elmer fans. These works, which introduce language and other concepts, are noted for their humor and for the brightness of their pictures. In a review of these titles in School Library Journal, Linda Wicher wrote that Elmer's Friends, "the most sophisticated of the four, leaves readers with the message that we can be different and still get along." Another supplement to the series, Elmer's Pop-up Book—published in the United States as I Can Too!—finds Elmer meeting a variety of jungle animals, each of which insists that it possesses a specific talent the little elephant lacks, such as flying, flapping, stretching, and swinging. By good-naturedly reinterpreting the definitions of these skills, Elmer proves the other animals wrong. In her review of what she described as a "cleverly crafted" moveable book, School Library Journal reviewer Lucy Rafael stated that McKee's "message is clear: anything is possible when one thinks positively."
The Magician Who Lost His Magic is the first of McKee's books about Melric, a magician who serves an impetuous, childish king and who learns lessons as he attempts to retain his job. In the series debut Melric loses his powers until he learns that magic must be used for sensible purposes. Reviewing The Magician Who Lost His Magic for School Librarian, Gabrielle Maunder stated that "McKee has two great gifts which will be familiar to those who have seen his former books . . . ; these are his ability to tell a ridiculous story with an absolutely straight face, and the other his talent to make each spread interesting by the way in which he divides it into sections." Mary B. Mason, writing in School Library Journal, added that The Magician Who Lost His Magic is an "effectively told story" featuring illustrations that are "characterized by expressive, comic detail."
In The Magician and the Sorcerer Melric is confronted by Sondrak, an evil and ambitious sorcerer, but by drawing on the power of laughter Melric is able to defeats the threatening sorcerer by making those around Sondrak laugh at him. A reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement noted that McKee's "illustrations offer all kinds of comic detail to delight the mind and eye," while Edward Hudson referred to the author/illustrator in the Children's Book Review as "a man full of ideas and with a sense of humour which enables him to convert them into words and pictures which will appeal to young children."
The Magician and the Balloon, published in the United States as Melric and the Balloons, outlines how Melric uses his gentle magic to save the country from the king's meddling. Writing in the Junior Bookshelf, Marcus Crouch commented, "If you want proof that the ideal illustrator of a picture book is the author, then David McKee provides it."
The "King Rollo" series features a chubby, ingenuous king who, despite his beard, is truly childlike. Because of his position, King Rollo gets to do all sorts of adult things children often wish they could, but he approaches all of his activities with childlike innocence and curiosity. According to Annette Curtis Klause in School Library Journal, the king "rolls, bounces, waves, and prances through his small world, always with a sense of true delight and discovery." Other members of Rollo's kingdom include Queen Gwen, Rollo's competent partner; Cook, who is a bit fearsome but is always ready to serve up some sage advice for the miniature monarch; the Magician, who has great respect for the correct use of magic and is as afraid of Cook as King Rollo is; and Hamlet the cat, who is both observant and always ready for adventure.
McKee published his first three books about Rollo—King Rollo and the Birthday, King Rollo and the Bread, and King Rollo and the New Shoes—in 1979. In these works, which are published in a small format designed to fit the hands of preschoolers and early readers, Rollo attempts to tie his shoes, makes a birthday cake for his queen, and tells the magician to change a farmer's simple loaf of coarse bread into a variety of appetizing dishes. A critic for Kirkus Reviews noted that the stories contain "some slight, raffish charm and varying amounts of substance—varying, that is, from almost none to as much as one might expect . . . given the format." Writing in School Library Journal, Bessie Condon Egan concluded that the "King Rollo" books add up to "a good series for lower elementary-age beginning readers and good bedtime fare to share with pre-schoolers." Egan also predicted that "King Rollo is bound to be a hit with American audiences."
Produced in a larger format than the first volumes in the "King Rollo" series, King Rollo's Playroom and Other Stories contains four new tales about the little king. In the title story, Cook advises the king to clean up his many toys; when Rollo steps on some of his toys and breaks them, he realizes he should have listened to Cook. "The simple storyline and the clear, attractive pictures make these an excellent first series for very young children finding out about their world," concluded a reviewer in Books for Keeps. Writing in the Times Educational Supplement, Naomi Lewis commented that, "Zany as they may seem, the King Rollo books have more in them than you would think." Noting that King Rollo's Playroom is "at once witty and childlike," the reviewer concluded by advising, "Don't wait to enter the glorious Rollo world if you're four or less." Describing the series in the British Book News Children's Books, Audrey Laski noted that McKee's "most popular books are probably the King Rollo picture-strips.... King Rollo is Everychild, doing things children like to do, supported by Queen and cat, enjoying life even when things go wrong; these are cheerful and reassuring books." As with the character of Mr. Benn, King Rollo achieved additional popularity through the animated films and television shows created by McKee's studio, King Rollo Films.
While his series books have proved immensely popular with younger children, McKee received much of his adult attention in response to a trio of individual titles he wrote in the late 1970s and early 1980s: Tusk Tusk, I Hate My Teddy Bear, and Not Now, Bernard. In Tusk Tusk the author describes a time when the elephants of the world were either black or white. Hating each other for their color, the elephants fought each other to the death, except for a few pacifists from both groups who fled to the jungle; later, their peaceful descendants emerge as grey. The book ends on an ironic note: the grey elephants discover that they once again fall into two groups—those with little ears and those with big ears. Writing in the Times Educational Supplement, Carolyn O'Grady praised the colors chosen for the book and added that McKee's "illustrations are especially ingenious: trunks become guns, revolvers, and hands to point an accusing finger." Elaine Moss wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that, "Like Michael Foreman, David McKee can use humour and his considerable talents as an artist to make young people think about current issues." In a review for the School Library Journal, Ruth M. McConnell felt differently about Tusk Tusk, noting: "The moral is muddled as a final cameo shows elephants with medium ears clasping trunks . . . , while the ironic caption of 'Viva la difference' under the opening cameo of a pachyderm-punch-out will also be lost on small fry."In an interview with Audrey Laski for the British Book News Children's Books, McKee denied that his postscript is bleak: he views it as a message "to the adult that the child will be" and as a remembrance that "we have to live with all the differences." He also noted that some teachers banned Tusk Tusk from their classrooms as racist. Laski commented that this "is a dotty response to a book whose overriding impulse is passionately anti-war and one that is actually no more about race than about any other divider." The author/illustrator returns to his pacifist theme in the 2004 picture book The Conquerors, which focuses on military conquest between nations in a fable-like context.
I Hate My Teddy Bear is often considered McKee's signature work as well as his most surrealistic. In this book, two small children, Brenda and John, are sent outside while their mothers socialize over a cup of tea. After leaving their "hated" bears—toys so familiar to the children that they have become boring—under a tree, they play a game of one-upsmanship, boasting that their teddies can do things like fly, sing, and count backwards. The bears carry on a conversation of their own, finally agreeing that they are equally talented. At the end of the story, the children carefully retrieve their bears, demonstrating, in the words of Margery Fisher of Growing Point, "all the time the happiest of alliances."
McKee's watercolor illustrations tell a separate story, however, depicting a background where adults move heavy loads of huge hands and feet and perform activities like palm-reading, painting, conjuring, and spying. The final illustration shows all the giant pieces being mounted as statues for a sculpture exhibition.
Writing in the Times Educational Supplement, Naomi Lewis called I Hate My Teddy Bear "a most remarkable book" and "a brilliant foray into the surreal—or far more likely, a demonstration of the real: that the centre of any happening is never where we think." Mary Butler Nickerson commented in the School Library Journal that, "Although activity is portrayed, . . . it is surreal, unexplained, and gratuitous and overwhelmed by the preponderance of isolated sad-faced children who sit and stare. The sense of dislocation and desolation is strong. This is a book for children?" Gillian Klein questioned in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. "The divergence of text and picture in I Hate My Teddy Bear is practically subversive." In her review in Picture Books for Young People 9-13, Elaine Moss wrote: "Make of this surrealist picture book what you wish, but don't miss it so long as you don't mind not being sure what it's all about." Speaking about I Hate My Teddy Bear to Laski, McKee increased the mystery, quipping: "Primarily, it's a love-story."
In Not Now, Bernard McKee features a child whose self-absorbed parents answer his every statement with the refrain of the title. Throughout the book, the boy's distracted parents never look at Bernard, not even when he tells them that there is a monster in their garden ready to eat him. Not even after the monster devours Bernard and takes his place in the family do his parents change their response. At the end of the story, Bernard's mother puts the monster to bed in Bernard's room, despite the creature's claim that he is a monster. Writing in the Times Educational Supplement, Carolyn O'Grady predicted, "A lot of adults, I'm sure, will hate David McKee's Not Now, Bernard. Kids love it. . . . Even very young children see the joke and apparently couldn't care a jot about poor Bernard, transferring their affections immediately to the lovable gruesome monster." Aidan Warlow, in School Librarian, said of the book, "As a satirical comment on neglectful parents, it works. As a picture book for infants, it doesn't." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly concluded that Not Now, Bernard is "a bizarre, negative picture book that should be for grownups. 'Taint funny, McKee." Responding to McKee's comment that children relate first to Bernard and then to the monster, interviewer Laski concluded in British Book News Children's Books that, "Presumably, they understand instinctively . . . that Bernard has cheerfully become, rather than been engulfed by, this rather engagingly ugly violet-coloured beast."
McKee defends the right of a picture book for children to be, as he told Laski, "another art medium." As he noted in reflecting on the art of book illustration: "You start with a clean piece of paper, you make a mark on it and immediately it's wrong—you spend the rest of the time trying to put it right." Of the inspiration for his books, he explained that "It's not as if you write them at all, it's as if you listen to them being told." He concluded, "Most of us have got more than we realize. . . . I really enjoy life and I know I enjoy it."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Literature Review, Volume 38, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996, pp. 153-182.
Picture Books for Young People, edited by Nancy Chambers, Thimble Press, 1985, p. 13.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, fourth edition, edited by Laura Standley Berger, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995, pp. 650-652.
Booklist, May 1, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Elmer Takes Off, p. 1522; June 1, 1999, Ilene Cooper, review of Elmer and the Lost Teddy Bear, p. 1842; May 15, 2000, Marta Segal, review of Elmer and the Kangaroo, p. 1749.
Books for Keeps, September, 1988, review of King Rollo's Spring, King Rollo's Summer, King Rollo's Autumn, and King Rollo's Winter, p. 6, and Moira Small, review of Melric and the Balloon, p. 9; May, 1996, Stephanie Nettell, review of Charlotte's Piggy Bank, p. 25; November, 1997, p. 20.
British Book News Children's Books, March, 1986, Audrey Laski, "Enjoying Life" (interview), pp. 2-5.
Children's Book News, November-December, 1968, J. A. Cunliffe, review of Elmer: The Story of a Patchwork Elephant, pp. 311, 313.
Children's Book Review, winter, 1974-75; Edward Hudson, review of The Magician and the Sorcerer, p. 145.
Growing Point, July, 1964, Margery Fisher, review of Bronto's Wings, p. 345; November, 1979, Margery Fisher, review of Big Game Benn, pp. 3607-3608; January, 1983, Margery Fisher, review of I Hate My Teddy Bear, p. 4016.
International Review of Children's Literature and Librarianship, Volume 7, number 1, pp. 11-18.
Junior Bookshelf, April, 1968, review of Mr. Benn, Red Knight, p. 95; October, 1970, review of 123456789 Benn, p. 276; April, 1979, Marcus Crouch, review of The Magician and the Balloon, p. 98; October, 1987, review of The Sad Story of Veronica Who Played the Violin, pp. 214-215; August, 1996, p. 142.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1980, review of King Rollo and the Birthday, p. 777.
Listener, November 7, 1985, William Henry Hudson, review of Two Monsters, p. 32; April 15, 1999, p. 633.
Magpies, May, 1999, pp. 26-27.
New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1970, Selma B. Lanes, review of 123456789 Benn, p. 51.
Publishers Weekly, August 17, 1970, review of 123456789 Benn, p. 50; April 3, 1981, review of Not Now, Bernard, p. 74; September 8, 1989, review of Elmer: The Story of a Patchwork Elephant, p. 68; June 16, 1997, p. 58.
School Librarian, December, 1970, Gabrielle Maunder, review of The Magician Who Lost His Magic, p. 502; September, 1980, Aidan Warlow, review of Not Now, Bernard, p. 252; August, 1991, review of Elmer Again, p. 102; May, 1994, Irene Babsky, review of The School Bus Comes at Eight o'Clock, p. 56; August, 1996, p. 107; August, 1997, p. 131; spring, 1999, p. 19.
School Library Journal, March, 1969, Gertrude B. Herman, review of Mr. Benn, Red Knight, p. 144; December 15, 1970, Mary B. Mason, review of The Magician Who Lost His Magic, pp. 36-37; January, 1980, Ruth M. McConnell, review of Tusk Tusk, p. 59; August, 1980, Bessie Condon Egan, review of King Rollo and the Birthday and others, p. 54; August, 1984, Mary Butler Nickerson, review of I Hate My Teddy Bear, p. 62; March, 1988, Annette Curtis Klause, review of King Rollo's Autumn and King Rollo's Summer, pp. 170-171; January, 1995, Linda Wicher, review of Elmer's Colors and others, p. 90; January, 1998, Lucy Rafael, review of I Can Too!, p. 89; May, 2000, Hennie Vaandrager, review of Elmer and the Kangaroo, p. 149.
Times Educational Supplement, June 23, 1978, Carolyn O'Grady, "Paradise Lost and Found," p. 21; June 20, 1980, Carolyn O'Grady, "Horrors," p. 44; December 18, 1981, Frances Farrer, "Scrambling to the Top of the Tree," p. 22; November 19, 1982, Naomi Lewis, "Once upon a Line," p. 32; June 3, 1983, Naomi Lewis, "Feather, Fur, and Fantasy," p. 44.
Times Literary Supplement, September 20, 1974, "Enticing Ingredients," p. 1011; September 20, 1975, review of The Magician and the Sorcerer, p.1011; September 29, 1978, Elaine Moss, "Going to the Pictures," p. 1087.
Anderson Press Web site, http://www.andersenpress.co.uk/ (March 7, 2005).*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Barbara Barbieri McGrath (1953–) Biography - Personal to Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) BiographyDavid (John) McKee (1935-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights