Childhood is a glorious thing, an incorruptible period of grass-stained knees, grazed elbows and the colourful picture books from which we first learnt how to read. And none of these books is more colourful, more beloved, than David McKee’s Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, published in 1989. Cementing its national treasure status, every 26th of May marks ‘Elmer Day’. To join in the festivities this year, I spent around 20 minutes perusing the kiddies section of Waterstones (an act for which I received some particularly questionable looks from concerned staff members), and managed to grab myself a brand new copy of Elmer.
But, upon re-reading the book, I found something strange. Because while Elmer is a story which exposed the world to the inner-workings of elephant society, it also acts as an early introduction for children to the themes of race and diversity. Although it is not as simple a case as all the elephants being separated between White and Black, Elmer’s patchwork identity singles him out from the rest of the herd. And the fact that this only occurred to me around 18 years after originally reading the book indicates how pervasive and invisible these themes can actually be.
I’ve recreated the story in full below, so that we can sit down in our patchwork armchairs and read through the story together across the ether of the internet. If I’m about to go and ruin your childhood, I apologise in advance.
The opening image of Elmer shows us a herd of perpetually leftward-facing elephants, each as different looking as the next. These elephants are “young”, “old”, “tall”, “fat” and “thin”, unique in their distinct physical attributes as well as the varying shades of their grey skin. There’s elephants with straight trunks and elephants with bent trunks. There’s elephants with legs twice the size of their bodies and elephants who look like they’ve eaten five pairs of elephant legs for breakfast. There’s elephants with long tails and elephants with no tails at all, and not to mention the weird wrinkly fucker in the bottom right-hand corner who looks like he just drank from the wrong cup in his search for the Holy Grail.
You get the point. Each elephant is distinct in their own individual right. As McKee puts it, they are “all different but all happy and all the same colour”. However, the communality of this “same colour” only becomes apparent when we turn the page and are introduced to Elmer.
Suddenly, the elephants on the previous page who were “all different” don’t look so different at all. It is only through the appearance of Elmer as an elephant whose patchwork colour marks him as decidedly Other that a normative, grey elephant colour can be established, and that the rest of his herd begin to take on a collective racial identity. Likewise, in human society, it is through the presence of ‘non-white’ individuals that white skin colour is constructed as a signifier which defines whether an individual falls under the protective category of whiteness and white supremacy, or whether they are excluded from it. Elmer is “yellow and orange and red and pink and purple and blue and green and black and white”, but most importantly, he is “not elephant colour.” As Elmer’s extreme visual difference protrudes from the page, grey elephant colour becomes the social norm.
It is interesting that McKee includes both Black and White within Elmer’s colourful patchwork appearance. Included in such a way, Black and White become colours in a spectrum rather than – as they are so often considered in modern society – as polar opposites. It’s an important message to child readers that black and white are merely colours that society has applied divergent attributes to, rather than racial identities that are inherently different to one another.
Unlike the status quo within human culture, Elmer is not ostracized for his otherness. On the contrary, his diversity is celebrated; he is loved, lifted high into the sunset like a long-awaited glass of Pimms or a Cheeky Vimto. Rather than a danger to the grey elephant homogeneity, Elmer is seen as an integral member of the herd. McKee informs his audience, both child and adult alike, that accepting diversity in all its patchwork forms is the key to collective happiness. There’s a lot to be learnt from this. Throughout a large chunk of Western history, ideas of miscegenation played a crucial role in the formation of social boundaries, as white society often feared that interaction (especially sexual) with ‘non-whites’ would somehow lead to the corruption of the ‘pure’, white, Anglo-Saxon race. But for McKee, Elmer is treated not as an impurity of the elephant world, but as an extension of it.
Nevertheless, being consistently positioned as the outsider-within is too much for Elmer. Elmer is “tired of being different”, believing that his fellow elephants laugh at him rather than with him, as he loses the agency over his own patchwork identity.
There’s not much to be said about this page, apart from to point out that there is absolutely no way a delicious looking zebra would be sharing the limelight with a lion, a tiger and an alligator – three fairly apex predators. I mean just look at the way the alligator is eyeing up that black and white-striped batty! That’s either one extremely stupid zebra or one extremely tolerant ecosystem.
You’d find no such “elephant coloured berries” at your local Sainsbury’s, so I’ve no idea exactly how far Elmer just had to walk. Rolling around in these berries, Elmer succeeds in turning his skin grey, so that “when he had finished, Elmer looked like any other elephant.” Now, some of us tender snowflakes might abruptly put Elmer down here and justifiably wonder: ‘Hang on, did Elmer just grey-up?’. To the untrained eye, it might just seem that way. We hardly go a week in Britain without hearing news about how some desperately over-privileged white boys have ‘blacked-up’ for a laugh (I knew someone that once went to an Otley Run fully covered in brown dye – he was dressed as an ‘Arsehole’. Utter moron).
But Elmer’s berry escapade is not a case of minstrelsy. Instead, it is an instance of cross-racial passing: when an individual from an oppressed racial group is temporarily accepted as a member of the dominant racial group. Passing has been a popular theme of exploration within African American culture, from the literary daring of Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen and James Weldon Johnson, to the scathing cultural critique of 2004’s White Chicks. Although passing narratives don’t always involve physically changing the colour of their protagonist’s skin, Elmer’s transformation serves to undermine notions of racial difference and highlight the instability of race itself by suggesting that racial signifiers are only ever skin-deep.
I’m not going to go on about it any longer but this zebra is making a mockery of the food chain. It is preposterous. I will accept multi-coloured elephants, but I cannot bring myself to accept that this zebra has survived the last two pages. Instead, notice the use of the word ‘passed’ here, as Elmer “passed the other animals again”. Elmer’s re-entrance into the elephant herd further reinforces his actions as a moment of cross-racial passing, as he is considered by the surrounding animals to be a ‘normal’, grey elephant.
Elmer slips back into the herd, unnoticed. But can we really be sure which of these seemingly identical elephants is actually Elmer? Apart from a characteristic bit of cheeky side-eye, the elephants are now indistinguishable – a stark comparison to how they were portrayed in Elmer’s opening image. This suggests a fatal weakness in our reading process. The reader hasn’t seen Elmer as the culmination of all his different physical attributes – his ears, his nose, his tail, his feet, his lack of tusks. Instead, we have seen the colour of Elmer’s patchwork skin as the only thing necessary to distinguish him from the crowd, and we have chosen to look no closer. It’s a brutal lesson to learn at such a young age: that even when engaging with and celebrating aspects of diversity we can simultaneously find ourselves passively reinforcing the structures that allow racist ideologies to maintain themselves. Because not only does Elmer pass to the other elephants and the death defying zebra, he passes to the reader as well.
It doesn’t take long for Elmer to realise, however, that being just like everyone else can be a little bit boring. This is because racial identities are not only defined by skin colour but also by their performative nature. Although acquiring grey skin colour allows Elmer to pass amongst elephant society, Elmer is also forced to perform his new-found racial identity in order to not look out of place. This normal elephant identity is one of standing in fields, trying to remembering something you told yourself you’d never forgot – not one bit of Elmer, not at all. So, while Elmer finds comfort in being accepted as a member of the dominant group, he nevertheless longs for the past identity that has been forced to lose as a necessity for his passing.
To counter this transformation, Elmer pulls the biggest practical joke since Ashton Kutcher punk’d Justin Timberlake by repossessing his house. Defying expectations, Elmer screams “boo!” and watches as his fellow elephants unanimously shit themselves. Instantly, the rest of the herd recognise Elmer without the evidence of his patchwork skin colour. Again, this feeds into the performativity of race, as identities have to be continuously performed and witnessed by society in order to be maintained. Race becomes something socially constructed rather than biologically generated, and when Elmer’s disguise washes off in the showers of a rainstorm to reveal his “true colours”, the fragile temporality of his cross-racial identity is exposed.
It is in its final page that Elmer finds itself limited. The above image depicts ‘Elmer Day’, a national elephant holiday where all the elephants “decorate themselves and parade” in wonderful technicolour. Elmer Day is meant to be a celebration, a day where all the elephants come together to embrace the possibilities of diversity by dressing up as something different to themselves. However, while the other elephants can attend Elmer Day in any barmy shape or colourful pattern they fancy, Elmer can only “decorate himself elephant colour.” By enforcing this rule, McKee essentialises Elmer’s patchwork identity as entirely opposite to the standard, grey elephant colour. Elmer cannot paint himself in squiggly lines or dress up like Pennywise from It, because then he would still represent exactly what he represented in his original patchwork form: the Other.
This operates in a remarkably similar fashion to the ‘one-drop rule’ which pervaded America for much of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The one-drop rule was a phenomenon of social-political thought which argued that if an individual had any trace of black identity within their ancestral heritage, that individual was legally defined as black. This meant that, in the eyes of the law, any deviation from 100% ‘pure’ white was, therefore, not white. Likewise, in the world of Elmer, anything other than 100% ‘pure’ grey is therefore “not elephant colour.” As a consequence, even when the elephant community are coming together to revel in the blessings of diversity, grey is continuously being constructed as the norm. It is in this sense that Elmer represents a post-racial elephant, because even though his inclusion in elephant society indicates an instance of racial differences being overcome, the maintenance of these differences allows race and racism to be overlooked rather than categorically ‘solved’. Because of Elmer Day, diversity and deviations from the norm are championed; because of Elmer Day, these deviations will always be Other.
Perhaps this all a little far fetched. Perhaps Elmer is a multi-coloured elephant whose raison d’être is simply to sell plushy merchandise or put a fundamental dent in the ivory trade. But the correlations between Elmer and the structural racism of the world around us are too stark to overlook, and McKee’s exploration of diversity is a gentle reminder of the huge role child literature plays in our development as human beings. Children are not born with racist inclinations; they learn how to interact with the world via the adults they look up to and the media they consume. The influence of Elmer, as a book which teaches us to respect those we view as different, cannot be understated.
We need to learn from these lessons to ensure that, when we’re celebrating Elmer Day, we’re not just celebrating a great book or a blissful moment from our childhood, but that we’re celebrating racial diversity and promoting equality everywhere – whether Black, White, or Patchwork.