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Elmer by David McKee

In 1998, a board book version of one of the 22 Elmer stories that have been published since the original debuted in 1989 made a road trip with a 9 month old infinitely more bearable. Elmer the Patchwork Elephant is now 25 years old and I am very happy to revisit this book and call attention to what I think can safely be called a classic at this point.

McKee's story of acceptance - self acceptance and to a degree, societal acceptance - is told in a creative, entertaining, non-didactic way. And his illustrations are fantastically colorful and filled with all the jungle animals kids love to identify along with other great details.

The patchwork Elmer is born into a herd where all the other elephants are a variety of greys. And Elmer is the heart of the herd. Elmer kept the other elephants laughing and playing games and making jokes, but one day he woke up feeling like the elephants were laughing at him and not with him. A roll in a big pile of grey berries gives Elmer conformity, but not satisfaction. Back with the herd, no one even notices him. They are all so still and serious that he cannot help but want to laugh at them. Finally, unable to bear the gravity anymore, Elmer shouts, "BOOO!" The elephants jump in surprise, them burst out laughing at the silliness of it all, wishing that Elmer was there to share the fun.

When a rain shower washes away the grey and the herd realizes that Elmer was there all along, they declare that his best joke ever! To commemorate Elmer's best joke ever, the herd decides to have an annual Elmer Day parade where all the other elephants decorate themselves in every color possible and Elmer takes a roll in the grey berries again.

The plot is pretty simple and sort of open ended, but the theme of respect for others' differences and the virtue of being oneself is clear. McKee, who is white, was inspired to write the story when, while walking down the street with his  late wife, who was Anglo-Indian, and their daughter, a boy across the street used a racial slur to describe their daughter. The great thing about Elmer is that is can be adapted to many different possible situations. The 2003 book, Elmer and the Hippos, in which Elmer's herd rejects a newly relocated pod of hippos, was inspired by the rejection of immigrants he witnessed while living in England and France. Raised on Aesop's Fables and Biblical parables, McKee is a bit of a moralist. McKee's next Elmer book is based on the floods that devastated England and Europe recently, but will also be inspired by the story of Noah and his ark. For more about McKee, don't miss Stuart Jeffries's article in The Guardian.

Source: Review Copy


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