David Morton interviews Eric Hill, creator of one of the world’s most famous puppies
With over 28 million books in print world-wide and more than 11 million in the UK alone, it’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t know Spot. Eric Hill’s small dog is not only one of the most popular children’s book characters with the under-fives – not just for the books, but the videos, plush toys, bed linen, clothing, greetings cards, jigsaws and even cakes – he’s also one of the very few characters who, when you mention his name, even those adults who say ‘Oh … children’s books …’ will sigh with fond recognition and tell you how much their niece/nephew or the child-next-door loves him.
Considering how Spot began 16 years ago, it’s a remarkable success. ‘Spot wasn’t supposed to be a book,’ says Eric Hill. ‘I was working as a freelance at home, on a series of flaps for an advertising agency, and I noticed that my son was amused by them. So over a period of time I built up a flap book, based on a puppy.’ The book was taken by a friend’s literary agent daughter to the Frankfurt Book Fair and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, almost. Spot nearly never became a book, due to publisher nervousness and lack of experience with this type of product. ‘They were worried about cost and how to do it, because it was the first time a book like this had been presented,’ Hill explains. It wasn’t until they found a packager who knew how to make it work that Spot got into print.
Spot’s deceptive simplicity comes from Eric’s training as a cartoonist. ‘With cartooning, you draw things in the most economical way possible, but simplicity is hard to achieve and doesn’t come from itself,’ he comments. Every picture is pared down to show a clarity of line and colour, almost iconographic illustrations for even the youngest reader. ‘Although my style is simple, it doesn’t prevent me from including details which give character and to which, I think, children should be exposed.’ The text, written initially as a voice-over, is then chosen to ‘engineer a situation where there are questions and answers, where you can have a conversation with the child and look closely, so it becomes a very natural thing to do.’ When creating a Spot book, Eric is constantly aware of the small child and adult who will be reading it, and insists it should be enjoyable. ‘Part of the success of Spot is the play element – a hippo and a pink piano, for instance – I want to keep the idea that reading, that sharing a book, can be fun.’ This extends to the phenomenally successful merchandising programme, undoubtedly a major contributory factor to Spot’s success – and its logo, FUN WITH SPOT – which Eric Hill controls with an iron fist to ensure that product and image are right, so he can ‘protect the children and parents who buy the products – I don’t want them to be disappointed.’
Each Spot book is created very much from the point of view of a child exploring the world, with Spot as that child. So Where’s Spot? was followed by Spot’s First Walk, and Birthday and Christmas and so forth. Everything that happens in the books must be ‘based on fact and what might happen to a child’, Eric insists. So, for example, Spot will not Go To War, despite it, alarmingly, being a favourite request from children; nor will Spot Go Into Space; both because they are things which your average under-five would not do and because they are dangerous situations in which a child should not be placed.
In the latest title, Spot Visits His Grandparents (Frederick Warne, 0 7232 4334 4, £7.99), the trip comes about because Eric Hill felt the time was right for him to do so: ‘I have built up a family, and grandparents were obviously something that would have come at some time. Having done it, it seems perfectly natural.’ It’s also something of a homage to the grandparents Eric has met on his author tours and signings – loyal fans, many of whom are active in the Pre-School Learning Alliance (formerly the Pre-school Playgroup Association), which has chosen Spot as the mascot for their Child Appeal, an accolade which confirms Spot’s pre-eminence as a favourite with this age-group.
Eric obviously loves Spot. ‘He’s so close to me and part of me, I sometimes find it very hard to think that he’s a character I’ve just made up.’ There’s something thoughtful and considerate about this puppy, which is clearly visible in his creator, and which, in turn, is shown in Spot’s world, the world as Eric Hill would like it to be: ‘protecting the environment, cultural variety, a sense of gentleness’. There seems little doubt that Spot will be around for some time to come. Eric has at least four or five ideas for new Spot books in his ‘bottom drawer’, all of which will be as carefully and fondly constructed and will therefore, very probably, be as successful and as well-loved as their predecessors.
Spot books are all published in hardback by Frederick Warne and in paperback by Puffin.