A beautiful joker, Elmer, presents a colorful painting of an elephant adorned with vibrant squares.

Elmer: beautiful joker offering big life lessons


Subject: PHSE

Age Group: EYFS and KS1

Topic: Diversity and Inclusion

Synopsis: Elmer, the patchwork elephant created by David McKee longs to look like the other grey elephants. The elephant herd accepts him as a friend, but Elmer doesn’t want to be different. He disguises himself by rolling in berry juice, but when it rains his disguise is ruined. Here Pat Elliott, from Westminster SLS, explores how Elmer can help young children celebrate their individuality and see how friendship and diversity can go hand-in-hand. 

Pat Elliott
Westminster SLS

Librarian’s view:

I work with London school children as both a librarian and heritage educator, and regularly meet pupils with special needs as well as those from diverse cultural and social backgrounds. It never ceases to amaze me how very young children unquestionably accept and accommodate the differences they perceive in those around them; but the growing child is influenced by the mindsets of those they encounter. Picture books, like Elmer, which explore positive attitudes and friendship, can become a valuable tool for encouraging discussion with young children about the importance of embracing and celebrating our diverse world.

Elmer Day celebrations this year are tinged with sadness after the recent death of Elmer’s creator, writer and artist David McKee. One of a series, the first picture book about Elmer, the patchwork elephant, was published in 1968. The author was inspired to write Elmer after his young daughter was the target of racist comments because of the colour of her skin.[1] McKee employs the character of Elmer as a positive synonym for individuality. Through Elmer and the various characters he encounters, children can be encouraged to forge friendships whilst celebrating their differences.

One commentator, Xiangning Li [2] emphasises that when discussing Elmer it’s important to recognise the children’s differences whilst fostering their strengths in a realistic way. In fact, Elmer is unable to maintain his disguise as a normal, grey-coloured elephant for long, but he discovers that it is his unique ability to make the other elephants laugh is what really matters to his friends.

Empathy with McKee’s colourful characters and the dilemmas they find themselves in, can help children to understand the experience and viewpoints of others. By asking children what’s special about Elmer, his friends and themselves, librarians, teachers and carers can use activities centred around the patchwork elephant as a springboard for discussion, storytelling and creative activities to foster an attitude of kindness to all – whilst encouraging empathy with the many different people they encounter on a daily basis.

The emphasis on the value of friendship, diversity and inclusion conveyed by McKee in his stories works best when he deals with a subject with which he has had first-hand experience, racial prejudice. He is not so successful in expressing tolerance with the special needs of Aunt Zelda whose deafness is used as a vehicle for humour. Whilst her physical disability is tolerated by the others he misses the opportunity to use her character to express empathy with her hearing problem. Exploring her feelings about her inability to communicate would be a valuable area to discuss and explore with young children.

Whilst not necessarily all of equal literary merit, the 29 published Elmer stories are a valuable teaching resource for exploring uniqueness and friendship, whilst also encouraging children on their reading for pleasure journey.

Elmer Day has been an annual event since its inception in 2016. Based on an idea in the first Elmer story, in which all the elephants celebrate their individualities, the day is supported by the Reading Agency with downloadable resources and ideas for cross-curricular activities.

In 2022 #ElmerDay is on Saturday 28 May – this year’s theme aims to encourage inclusivity and friendship. For a free resource pack go to https://www.elmer.co.uk/elmer-day/

[1] The Guardian Newspaper, Saturday 12 July, 2014, see https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jul/12/25-years-elmer-elephant-david-mckee
[2] Xiangning Li, Analysing Children’s Diversity and Identity in Elmer and the Ugly Duckling, Proceedings of the 2020 3rd international Conference on Humanities Education and Social Sciences (ICHESS 2020), p352 – 357, Atlantis Press. Link is https://www.atlantis-press.com/proceedings/ichess-20/125948998


by David McKee

Elmer is different. Elmer is patchwork.

The grey elephants all love him, but he soon starts to wonder what it would be like to be just the same as them…

Full of colour, wisdom and pathos, little readers will love this classic tale.

Elmer and Super El
by David McKee

One morning, Elmer hears an “Oh no!” Looking round, he spots Super El who’s in need of Elmer’s help. He must get to Aunt Zelda without any of the other animals seeing him and, as usual, it’s up to Elmer to come up with a cunning plan!

Elmer and Auntie Zelda
by David McKee

Elmer and Wilbur visit their Aunt Zelda. She may be getting old and deaf, but she is fun and has lots of interesting things to show the two young elephants.