The hugely successful children’s author and illustrator David McKee died last week. He will be best remembered for his Elmer the Patchwork Elephant and Mr Benn characters, the latter featuring last year on a set of 50p coins. Elmer championed a subtle anti-racist message to toddlers – that one should not pick on someone for looking different.
There is another book of McKee’s, Denver, which has not got the attention it deserves in the writeups since the author’s death. It has the look and feel of your typical picture book; as you would expect with McKee it is beautifully illustrated. But it has a rather different message than is the inspid norm for the genre. It is a genuinely subversive work.
Denver is quite simply the best – indeed probably the only – picture book rant against redistributive taxation. The book offers wholesome Thatcherite indoctrination for the under fives.
The 2010 book tells the story of Denver, a Lord of the Manor type in the village of Berton who ‘was rich. Very rich. Very, very rich’. He employed a chauffeur, a cook, gardeners etc and distributed his munificence around the place. Denver was happy and the villagers were content. Then ‘one day a stranger came to Berton’. The stranger spread the gospel of redistribution – and the villagers ‘were no longer happy’. On hearing the villagers’ grumbles Denver called a meeting and announced he would divide his wealth equally. He then moved to the nearby town. The villagers went on a spending spree and their money soon ran out. ‘Life wasn’t as good as it had been. There was no Denver’.
Denver himself was busy pursuing his passion for painting. Naturally Denver was prodigiously talented and his paintings soon ‘sold for a lot of money…. Denver became rich again’. The same can’t be said for the villagers of Berton.
As to the apostle of redistribution, the book ends with the warning: ‘As for the stranger, he’s still wandering around breeding discontent. If he comes your way, don’t listen to him’.
I grant you, the book’s message is not subtle. I don’t know if McKee was a devotee of Ayn Rand’s work, but it is the type of story that the American libertarian novelist and proponent of hyper-capitalism would have written if she had turned her attention to writing children’s books. In an episode of The Simpsons pro-capitalist teaching for pre-schoolers is satirised with an Ayn Rand School for Tots, where the young charges are taught that self reliance is the only way – but Denver is for real.
I first came across Denver by reading Polly Toynbee’s 2013 tirade against it in The Guardian . Her young granddaughter had borrowed it at her local library – and redistributionist Grandma Toynbee was suitably appalled. Toynbee interviewed McKee for the piece. McKee does not come across as the most sophisticated of political thinkers, but then why should a picture book author? His instincts are certainly the right ones – income equalities are an essential engine for capitalism to flourish and without a market economy we will all be immiserated.
My elder son was four at the time and bedtime reading had become rather a chore. After reading Toynbee’s screed, I knew that this was something I needed to order straight away – not so much to educate my boy but to relieve my nightly boredom. Thankfully the boy enjoyed it – and my younger son had to endure it later.
My initial astonishment was not at the book’s refreshing message, but rather how McKee had got it past his publisher. Denver is not brought to you by some small-time US west coast loony libbo outfit – the kind of people who might publish Gun Rights for Toddlers: Why the Second Amendment matters to pre-schoolers – but by a mainstream publisher, an imprint of Random House. Either there were still some sound people in children’s book publishing in 2010, or one can get away with a lot if one’s earlier books have sold in the millions – probably a bit of both.
Go out and order Denver for the toddlers in your lives. It sadly won’t turn the little ones into raving Thatcherites but it will be something of an antidote to the ubiquitous picture book message: the rich and powerful are almost uniformly villainous, eventually getting their comeuppance at the hands of the tribunes of the people. Better still order a copy for your local primary school or library. There are many more Polly Toynbee’s out there just asking to be annoyed.
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