Tony Bradman meets Spot’s creator Eric Hill
Take one small dog, add his mum and some animal friends, fill in the colours and put in some flaps – and what have you got? You’ve got Spot.
When Where’s Spot? appeared in 1980 it rapidly became a bestseller, and not only in Britain. More Spot books have followed – Spot’s First Walk and Spot’s Birthday Party, and more are to come after the newest title, Spot’s First Christmas.
In fact, Spot has been so successful that his creator, Eric Hill, can now afford to shake the dust of the Old World from his feet and go west – to be precise, to Arizona. That’s a long way for a self confessed townie, born and brought up in North London.
`I was born in 1927, and when the war came in 1939 I was evacuated to Bluntisham, in Huntingdon. I hated the countryside, so before Christmas I just took me bike and me little bag of sprouts and came home.’
Home was Holloway, and Eric experienced the blitz there. Although it wasn’t all bad. `That was what started me drawing. Like all kids, I was fascinated by aircraft, the Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts.
`I had a minimal education and left as soon as I could, at about 15. I had no art school training at all. My first job was pretty futile – it was as a clerk in a shipping office. But I saw an ad in the paper for a messenger in an art studio, applied and got it. I’ve never looked back.’
Working in that studio was an Austrian refugee called Wilhelm Timyn – better known as the cartoonist Tim. `He taught me an awful lot. I was brought up on the cartoon style – very few words.’
Children’s books and Spot came along after many successful years in advertising and as a freelance graphic designer, and after a second marriage, to Gillian who is also an artist. `I got interested in children’s books because we had a little boy, Chris, who’s seven now. When my first daughter, who’s now in her twenties, was born I was too busy earning a living to be very involved.
`I’d noticed from Chris and from friends’ children that they loved using their hands. At the time I was doing some novelty shots for some ads I was working on, with a man raising his bowler hat to reveal something underneath. Chris was fascinated by that.
`So I started making up the story of a little puppy called Spot, and the two ideas merged – puppy and flaps. It was all done for Chris.’
The rough of Where’s Spot? actually sat around in a drawer for a year before Eric did anything about it. (‘I was too busy earning a living then too.’) But eventually he gave it to a packaging company – Ventura – and the rest is history.
`I was really pleased because it went international straightaway, and became a bestseller. I think the first four countries it was sold to were France, Germany, the States and Britain. So I took a chance and decided to give up my graphic work entirely and devote myself to children’s books.
`I knew it wasn’t just a novelty, that there would be a sequel at least. I couldn’t leave the poor little sod in the basket, after all, could I? It’s like a cartoon, you’ve got to find out what happens next.’
Spot is now available in more than 20 languages all over the world – including Welsh and Gaelic. And Eric Hill hasn’t just restricted himself to everybody’s favourite puppy, either. He’s also worked on books with Allan Ahlberg – the Learning to Read series of paperbacks from Granada, featuring characters like Silly Sheep and Double Ducks – the Peek-a-Books from Piccolo, and the Baby Bear books from Heinemann. He says that in 1982 he produced 17 books – and he looks set for the same figure this year.
Eric intends Spot to have a very long future. `What’s pleased me most is that the Spot books have had a great success with children who’ve got difficulties, kids who are slow readers, for example. I get a terrific kick if I know that something I’ve done helps kids as well as entertains them.
‘I was pleased with the praise I had from the academic world, too. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing in using key words, for example – it seemed natural and right to write the text in that way. But then I got feedback from nursery teachers and reviewers that this was just what was needed and I started to learn from that.
`Spot’s changed a little with each book. I like there to be some progress. I’ll always stick to the flaps and the basic idea, but a character like Spot takes on a life of his own. It’s like childhood in a way; at first it’s just him and his mum, Sally, then he has some mates, and then you can do things like Spot’s First Christmas, and the one that’s going to come after that – Spot Goes to School. All themes which are familiar to kids. I’m committed to at least one Spot book per year for the foreseeable future.’
Eric’s move to Arizona is partly dictated by his involvement in children’s books, too. `I’ve been working for a San Francisco company called Determine Productions for some years, and on a trip there a few years back we decided we’d go for a holiday on a dude ranch in Arizona. Gillian loves horse riding, and even though I’d never done any, I decided to have a go.
`All three of us loved Arizona – that clean, dry desert air seems to agree with me. So when Determine suggested I move out to the States to get more involved with them, I thought about having a holiday home built in Arizona. That’s being done now, and we can use it as a permanent base. It won’t make any difference to my work. It’s international, anyway, and I’ll still be working with British and European publishers in the future.’
Eric Hill is a happy man who creates happy books. `All my books are gentle. I suppose that’s in my character. I could never have anything nasty happening in one of my books. I always think of a Greek film I saw once. There was a Greek tragedy in it, but Melina Mercouri comes on at the end and says “And afterwards, everyone was happy and they all went home.” The people in the film say to her, “you can’t say that”. But I agree with her – why not?’
Heinemann, 0 434 94288 X, t 4.95; Picture Puffin, O 14 050.420 6, £1.95
Spot’s First Walk
Heinemann, 0 434 94289 8, £4.50; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.421 4, £1.95
Spot’s Birthday Party
Heinemann, 0 434 94287 1, £4.50
Spot’s First Christmas
Heinemann, 0 434 94298 7, £4.95
Coming next Spring, also from Heinemann, Read and Colour Books. Short (12 pages) books, each one containing a story about Spot with coloured pictures and line drawings for children to colour in.