The BookTrust, the UK’s largest children’s reading charity awards the much-loved Elmer and Not Now, Bernard author and illustrator David McKee the winner of its prestigious annual Lifetime Achievement Award.
The BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award celebrates the body of work of an author and/or illustrator who has made an outstanding contribution to children’s literature. Previous winners include Shirley Hughes, the late Judith Kerr, Raymond Briggs, Helen Oxenbury and the late John Burningham, who were awarded the first ever double prize in 2018 and Jan Pieńkowski, the award-winning Polish-born author and illustrator, famous for his iconic Meg and Mog books.
On being recognised for a lifetime achievement award, David said: “The shock is hard to get over and it still doesn’t quite seem possible as I’ve never been one for the spotlight and or winning awards but it’s truly fantastic, and even though I still don’t really believe it, I’m accepting it anyway, with great pleasure.”
David, aged 85, was born in Devon in 1935 and has a career that spans over 60 years. His love of stories and drawing stems from his early childhood. He recalls fondly that lots of people told him stories, and that he loved the tales of Winnie the Pooh and Treasure Island but when thinking about job prospects, the arts didn’t really seem an acceptable career choice, saying “I didn’t even realise being an illustrator could be a real job!” Instead, David decided to take up teaching, however after embarking on a specialist arts teacher training programme at Plymouth College of Art, he decided the classroom wasn’t quite right for him after all and channelled his efforts into creating cartoons and experimenting with writing stories.
In the early part of his career, David regularly drew and sold humorous drawings to magazines and newspapers such as The Times Educational Supplement, Punch, the Reader’s Digest. His first book Two Can Toucan was published by Klaus Flugge in 1964. McKee has written and illustrated over 50 picture books for Andersen Press, many of which are now children’s classics, including King Rollo, Mr Benn, Not Now, Bernard and Elmer the Patchwork Elephant. David loves to paint and now lives between the South of France and London.
David’s books were published at a time when sudden changes in printing techniques allowed for much more colourful picture books and parents started to buy and read children’s books for themselves because they hadn’t seen them before. Elmer remains one of the most iconic and widely read children’s book series of all time, with its bright and bold colours, cast of unique characters and important message of acceptance and celebration of everyone’s differences at its heart. Elmer books have sold over 10 million copies worldwide since first published by Andersen Press in 1989. McKee’s classic picture book Not Now, Bernard, which celebrated its 40th year this June, has sold more than 5 million copies. His iconic Mr Benn celebrates 50 years since appearing on the BBC in 2021, with re-issues of the original book from Andersen Press.
Talking about the importance of children’s books, David says: “Children’s books can contribute to changing attitudes and are instrumental in helping them shape their view of the world. Picture books are a child’s first glimpse into the art world and in some way, especially with some of my books, the illustrations are actually more important than the story.”
Nicolette Jones, journalist and judging chair said: “I’m delighted to have chaired the panel which awarded this year’s BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award to David McKee. He has an amazing track record since 1964, with books such as King Rollo, Two Can Toucan and of course Elmer. David McKee understands the importance of always paying attention to children and what he gives them is first-rate. I hope readers continue to enjoy his marvellous work for years to come.”
Founder of Andersen Press, Klaus Flugge said: “I have been very proud to publish David McKee’s books for over 50 years; from Elmer to King Rollo, Not Now, Bernard and many, many more. David’s is a singular voice and a shining light in children’s books that highlights inclusivity, diversity and parts of our world that are not always present in children’s books. Not only am I fortunate to be his publisher, he is a great friend, and there is no-one more deserving of this honour.”
To read David’s interview with BookTrust’s Emily Drabble, click here.