Where’s Spot? Why, he’s all over the place, says Brian Alderson.
peeing and pooing seem to be regular subjects of mirth these days for the nursery library so a volume called The Toilet should raise no eyebrows. Nor would it have done in 1821 when an elegant little book of that title first appeared under the authorship of one Stacey Grimaldi. At that date, of course, the term referred – or did here, anyway – to the exercises performed by a lady in front of the mirror before preparing to join polite company.
It was not a manual however,
but rather a moral novelty book, based on an idea by Stacey’s father, William. Each page showed a single beautifully drawn, etched and labelled object from the dressing-table, on a flap. When the flap is lifted something about the object is revealed. For instance, beneath a flap saying, ‘Best white paint’ we are told that it stands for ‘Innocence’.
Such was the liking for this kind of book that a bolder (but less successful) theme was pursued for boys: A Suit of Armour for Youth, while later on the firm of Rock and Co’s Cachous Aromatics adopted it for advertising their wares in The Gentleman’s Toilet! (Below the flap saying, ‘To prevent the breath smelling of Tobacco’ was the stern adjuration, ‘Abstain from Smoking’.)
The Toilet was one of the first attempts to introduce a degree of ‘movability’ to a book’s pages. With machine printing and all the technological advances of mid-nineteenth century publishing, there were other developments, from early pop-ups, where you pulled a thread to make the picture stand up, to fabric pictures, or the comic ingenuities of the German Lothar Meggendorfer who could engineer clever double movements by the pulling of a single tab.
Oddly enough though,
the apparently simple ‘lift the flap’ technique of The Toilet seems not to have featured much amid the dazzling variety of Victorian inventions, nor among the comparatively few novelties that appeared over the four decades after the First World War. Indeed, even with the West’s discovery of the wonderful movables made by the Czech, Voitech Kubašta, the commercial emphasis tended to fall, and still falls, on ‘gasp’ books, the buyers wooed by sophistication. Was flap-lifting too crude, or was there an unexpected degree of expense and bother in the cutting and pasting of the flaps?
Whatever the reason,
Eric Hill trounced it in 1980. As his recent obituaries have all pointed out, he got the idea for the universally successful Where’s Spot? not from any earlier involvement in the pop-up revolution or from any historical awareness of the potential of paper engineering, but (as so often happens) from the pleasure his two-year-old son took in seeing him design a flap for an advert he was working on (so – back to the Cachous Aromatics!).
Hill’s natural inclination
as a graphic artist was towards simplicity. The winning combination of elements in Where’s Spot? exemplify its success: the repetition of the stages of Sally’s hunt for her puppy with all the ‘no’s’ from the motley collection of creatures that have found their way into the house; the stripped-down, two-dimensional drawing with its bold colours on a white ground; the final pay-off on the advice of a hidden tortoise. Many picture-book makers must be kicking themselves for not having come up with such a million-pound no-brainer!
Spot’s very simplicity
did raise questions about the puppy’s future. What was to happen next? It was only to be expected that there would be a sequel, which was Spot’s First Walk (and at the same time a goofy small-format money-spinner Puppy Love, on the lines of Sam McBratney’s later Guess How Much I Love You), but Hill may well have been anxious not to be typecast as ‘the Spot-Man’. In 1982, he varied the lift-the-flap technique with four cleverly-conceived Peek-A-Books (published by Piccolo rather than his main publisher Heinemann). These asked the reader to find the answers to questions on Opposites and the like with some very enjoyable drawings not only of dogs. A year later a British/Canadian venture produced four more directly-titled Lift-the-Flap Books which also played about with varied subjects.
But Spot came to predominate.
Two books without flaps about Baby Bear in 1984 seem to have convinced Eric Hill that Spot was the way forward. Year in, year out, Spot went visiting relatives or enjoying parties and festivals (Christmas … Easter …). Sometimes a story came out as a board book or bath book.
In later years he wrote longer stories, but these only showed that his prose was better fitted to snappy sentences. Perhaps the most successful of the later Spots was Spot’s Walk in the Woods (1993),a kind of rebus book, and Spot’s Touch and Feel Book (1997), which had different textures on the pages. These, too, had first been tried in Victorian times.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone, The British Library, 978-0712357289, £25.00 hbk, is out now.
Where’s Spot, Eric Hill, Puffin, 978-0141343747, £6.99 pbk