When I went to register my daughter for her first library card, I was overcome by nostalgia. Books were abundant in my own childhood. Toys and clothes may have been homemade or secondhand (and all the nicer for it, I now see) but there always seemed to be new books, and wonderfully chosen ones at that. Even so, a library card carried a special thrill. Before we were old enough for pocket money, it was a kind of currency – the best kind because it could be exchanged for books, and in the library it was ours to spend however we wished.
Of course, the cards kids get nowadays are plastic, just like the one that I have in my own name. But unlike mine, which is adorned with the local council’s uninspired branding, my daughter’s is embellished with a large image of Elmer the Patchwork Elephant.
Elmer was created nearly half a century ago by David McKee, a Devonshire painter who strayed into children’s books while looking for a way to earn a living. Incredibly, the book fell out of print after it was first published in 1968. It was reissued in 1989 and spawned a series that currently numbers more than 30 titles. Around the world, some 7 million copies have been sold in 50 different languages.
A cheery, glass-half-full pachyderm with a penchant for practical jokes, Elmer was conjured up in response to racism encountered by McKee’s Anglo-Indian wife and their daughter. In addition to diversity, the expanded series embraces themes including immigration and wealth distribution, with a lightness of touch that isn’t always a given in contemporary children’s lit.
McKee, who’s now in his 80s, is also the chap behind Mr Benn, but that bowler-hatted cult hero is more than deserving of his own post. For now, let’s focus on Elmer, whose latest incarnation is as a board book. Elmer: Hide and Seek! comes with that thing no chubby (and oh-so-strong) little hand can resist – flaps to lift (all the way off the page, if your toddler is particularly tenacious, though these particular flaps are billed as being ‘sturdy’). It’s a sweet introduction for the youngest readers to a character beloved for generations.
Elmer: Hide and Seek! is published by Andersen Press at £6.99.