Obituary: Eric Hill OBE, author

Born: 7 September, 1927, in London. Died: 6 June, 2014, in California, aged 86

Eric Hill OBE: Author who created the bestselling Spot the Dog books for children. Picture: PA
Eric Hill OBE: Author who created the bestselling Spot the Dog books for children. Picture: PA

The popular children’s author Eric Hill was top of the bestseller list for many years: his books about the timeless and engaging puppy, Spot the Dog, delighted generations of pre-teen children. Hill created the naughty but winning Spot in the late 1970s while working as a freelance designer and illustrator in London. The creation was one of those satisfying accidents that proved eminently successful and hugely commercial.

Spot first appeared in the bedtime stories that Hill told to his own son Christopher, who was then only four. When Hill committed the early Spot stories to paper he was reminded of a graphic design he had done for an advertisement some years earlier. For that campaign Hill had created a flap that, when lifted, revealed something amusing and memorable about the product. When he tried out the idea on Christopher with a Spot story it was a winner. Hill recalled: “A great big smile appeared on Christopher’s face and he said, ‘Do it again!’”

Within weeks Spot was a bestseller and loved by children and parents alike. Hill often introduced suggestions into the narrative, stating how children should behave and show respect for their elders. One book had a passage recommending his readers write thank-you letters.

Hill’s flap-up books were an international success and sold more than 60 million copies and were translated into 60 languages.

Eric Hill was born into a working-class family in the north London suburb of Holloway and left school at 14. He worked initially in an art studio where he showed a talent for drawing cartoons. He did National Service in the RAF and then found work as a commercial artist providing copy for comics and magazines. He was appointed to an advertising agency but that folded within weeks of his joining and he returned to freelance work.

But it was when Spot was first published in 1980 – with Where’s Spot? – that Hill became internationally recognised. The books cover the every-day life of the loveable Spot, a yellow puppy with brown spots and a brown-tipped tail. His adventures with his parents, grandparents, brother and sister – plus an odd hotch-potch of animals including a crocodile and a hippo were told with an engrossing charm.

They – Helen the hippo, Tom the crocodile, Steve the monkey – all took on their own personalities and their adventures were documented with enthusiasm and love by Hill.

The initial success was followed by another best-seller – Spot’s First Walk – and then, in 1983, an animated series, The Adventures of Spot. Hill often referred to himself as “Spot’s Dad” and admitted that much of his own character was reflected in the puppy. “When Spot shows excitement on Christmas Day and cries ‘Yippee’, that’s me in there,” he told an interviewer. “I love the character, he’s my buddy and I’m at ease with him.”

The franchise was hugely lucrative and the actress Jane Horrocks brought the stories vividly to life on audiobooks, and an animated TV series followed. Spot was soon an international brand to be found on a wide variety of merchandise from stationery to bed linen.

Spot was undoubtedly a worldwide commercial phenomenon but Hill never varied from his initial format. He kept the storylines simple with an underlying sense of fun and entertainment. Those qualities, allied to Hill’s own deft graphics and concise stories, made all his books accessible and excellent reads.

Hill, a very private man who seldom gave interviews, once said of his success: “I believe it’s the sense of fun that makes the books so popular.”

Hill attended the Children’s Party At The Palace in June 2006 as a “literary ambassador”, which was organised to celebrate the Queen’s 80th birthday. He was awarded the OBE for services to children’s literature in 2008 and received the honour from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace. The Prince had recently published his children’s book The Old Man Of Lochnagar but Spot had kept the Prince off the number one slot. “I was expecting to go for the chop, but he was very forgiving,” Hill recalled.

In the 1980s Hill and his family moved to America. At first they lived in Arizona but then moved to California. He returned to Europe often to oversee the marketing strategies in the UK for Spot and to stay in his house in France. Hill had a great affection for his own pet dog, Suzie, who accompanied him everywhere. Their ranch in California became a home for many stray dogs and cats and he and his wife Gillian also kept chickens and horses.

Eric Hill is survived by Gillian, Christopher and a daughter, Jane, from his first marriage, to Barbara, which was dissolved.