Picture Book Snob
We chat to Helen Baugh about The Spots and the Dots
The Spots and the Dots by Helen Baugh and Marion Deuchars is one of the most powerful pieces of storytelling I've ever seen. A favourite with my kids as well as with me, this remarkable book resonates with all readers, young and old. We reviewed the hardback last year and the paperback has recently been released.
To celebrate the new edition, author Helen Baugh kindly visited the blog to discuss this extraordinary story and the background to its creation. We were fascinated to discover what prompted Helen to write this book, the childhood memory that inspired its format and what the characters were called in an earlier draft. It was so interesting to hear that Helen had long admired Marion Deuchars before getting to work with her. We also discovered some of Helen's favourite children's books for promoting empathy, her advice for aspiring writers and what her next book is about...
What inspired this story and what do you hope children will take from it?
Like many of us, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by accounts of historical atrocities, or news stories, where people – including children – are hurt and killed. When I had the idea for this book, in 2012, I was copywriting for various charities and learning about additional horrors on a weekly basis. It was this extra exposure, I think, that pushed me to try and make a difference by writing a book that starts with a divisive ‘us and them’ theme but has a happy ending.
It’s a cliché, but no child is born prejudiced in any way. Prejudices – whether about race, religion, class, sexuality or anything else – are taught; but they can also be dissolved. To demonstrate how senseless prejudice is, the two stories in the book are identical (one told from the Spots’ perspective and one told from the Dots’). Both tribes fear and demonise the other, and everyone loses out as a result, until the smallest Spots and Dots discover the truth for themselves, when everything changes.
I really hope that these identical twin stories help children to see that we shouldn’t fear or hurt others, just because they’re different in some way. Diversity is to be celebrated, of course, but at the same time, we all have much in common at heart.
Helen and Marion made this video for children in lockdown last year
Was this always intended to be a flipbook and/or how did you get the idea for this?
No, it wasn’t! I knew that I wanted the book to feature identical twin stories, but I couldn’t work out how best to showcase them. I actually had the story/stories at the back of my mind for at least a year before I finally thought of the flipbook format, which came about because I remembered a doll that my friend Anna had when we were children.
From one way up, it was a white doll with a long skirt, but if you tipped it the other way up it was a black doll with a long skirt. So the top halves of the two dolls were joined at the waist, neither of them had legs, and the double-sided skirt could flip either way.
When I remembered Anna’s doll, seemingly out of the blue, I knew that a similar design would be perfect for the book, with the centre spread becoming the end of both stories. I was very excited, because I’d never seen or heard of a flipbook before and thought I’d invented a new format. I’ve since found out, though, that flipbooks have been around for some time!
Were you familiar with Marion’s work before you collaborated on this story?
Yes, a little bit, because when they were young my daughters had both been given Marion’s activity books as birthday presents. So I was already familiar with her famous hand-lettering, which is used to great effect in our book. When it was suggested that Marion would be perfect for The Spots and the Dots, I couldn’t quite believe that she’d agree. Prior to this book, Marion had only ever illustrated stories that she’d written herself, so it was brilliant that she took the book on.
How did it feel to see the illustrations and the finished book for the first time?
It was amazing! This book started out as an idea back in 2012, but I didn’t write it down until I hit upon the format in 2013. The first version was in prose and I re-wrote the same story/stories in rhyme, with new characters, in 2017. The book didn’t have a particularly easy start in life, but in 2018 I started working with Mandy Suhr at Miles Stott Children’s Literary Agency (thank you, Mandy!), who swiftly found a publisher for it (thank you, Andersen Press!). So when I finally held an advance copy of the finished book in my hands a few months before publication in 2020, it was a very special moment.
Do you have a favourite spread?
I do, but it changes! I love Marion’s illustrations, so it’s hard to choose.
Sometimes it’s the spread where the Spots or Dots picture the others as fierce monsters, or the playfight scene and the facing page where Baby Spot or Baby Dot get lost on the hill. But today, it’s the spread in the middle of the book, where the Spots and the Dots are united to play and laugh together and share the whole hill.
What’s the best feedback you’ve received about this book from a child?
During a school event via Zoom, a young boy said something like: “I love it that the Spots and the Dots are equal because we should all be equal.” Out of the mouths of babes…
It’s amazing how this concept is simple enough for children to understand while simultaneously tackling complex issues. How difficult was this to achieve – did the story go through many edits or did it arrive practically fully formed?
The initial draft did feel as if it arrived fully formed, but it didn’t really because the story had been percolating in my head for over a year. So once the format became clear, it was just a case of transcribing the words down onto paper.
After that, though, the story went through several edits - not least, when it changed from prose to rhyme! The playfight scene was also added and the characters themselves went through several incarnations… in an early version, for instance, they were the Pippins and the Poppins, where the Pippins were thin and straight like an ‘i’ and the Poppins were round like an ‘o’.
Was there anything you learned yourself during this book’s journey from first idea to publication?
Yes, definitely: if you really believe in a book, don’t give up on it. I discovered early on that this book isn’t for everyone - no book is, after all. And although a few people were behind it from day one, they didn’t work in publishing, unfortunately! Sometimes, though, it only takes one person to change everything and for this book, that person was my agent, Mandy Suhr. So, again, thank you Mandy for believing in The Spots and the Dots.
Are you working on anything at the moment and if so, can you talk about it?
Yes, I’m at the exciting stage of looking at some gorgeous colour layouts for a new book called Baby Bunny’s Easter Surprise that’s coming out next March. It’s illustrated by Nick East, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books and it’s been a lot of fun to work on.
It’s about a somewhat cheeky (and very cute) chocaholic baby bunny called Letty, who gains easy access to lots of Easter eggs when she discovers that her mummy is none other than the real-life Easter Bunny. As you can imagine, temptation proves very difficult to resist!
The Spots and the Dots is one of those rare books that children will remember into adulthood and which will shape how they interpret and experience the world. Were there any books you read as a child that had a lasting impact on you?
I used to have a compendium of fairy tales - I’ve still got it, actually - and one of the stories in it that stood out for me was The Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen. I think this might have been the first time I came across a story where a child is the one to expose the truth of a situation.
Are there any other children’s books you’d recommend to parents or teachers that explore prejudice and encourage empathy?
EmpathyLab has some great recommendations in its Read for Empathy Collections, but here are a few ideas from my shelves: Mixed by Arree Chung is a very simple book for young children that deals with prejudice. The Reds, Yellows and Blues live together in harmony, until a Red declares that Reds are the best. The other colours disagree and segregate, until one day a Blue and a Yellow meet and fall in love, have a Green baby and spark a colour revolution.
If the World Were a Village, by David J Smith and Shelagh Armstrong, is a fantastic book for helping children to understand more about other people and how they live. It re-imagines the world as a village of 100 people so that statistics about religion, poverty, health etc. are easier to understand and empathise with. It tells us, for instance, that 44 people in the village don’t always have enough food to eat.
How to Change the World, by Rashmi Sirdeshpande and Annabel Tempest, is another brilliant, factual book. It recounts real-life examples of how empathy can be a powerful force for change when people pull together. From the world’s first democracy in Athens in the sixth century BCE, to recent victories in the fight for marriage equality, it’s written in bite-size chunks with a can-do tone to inspire children to make changes of their own.
The rhyming in this story is masterful! Do you read or write a lot of poetry?
Crikey, thank you! OK, confession time, the honest answer here is no, not much. But I have a musical ear - I used to play the violin and the piano - and I think that helps me to hear what works and what doesn’t, when it comes to rhythm and rhyme.
Have you always wanted to write children’s books?
No, it didn’t even occur to me to try and write children’s books until I had children of my own. But when it did, because I’d worked for many years as a copywriter in partnership with an art director (where your words and visuals work hand in hand), picture books were the obvious choice.
What do you enjoy most about being an author?
I absolutely love it when I hear that a child has connected with one of my books in some way. Perhaps it makes them laugh (thinking of you, here, Rudey’s Windy Christmas!) or maybe it’s their current favourite book at bedtime, or they might have chosen to dress up as a character from one of my stories on World Book Day. News like this always makes my day, it’s really wonderful.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Other than to read and write whenever you get the chance, the best advice I can offer is to invest in the latest edition of The Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (or The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, if you’re writing for adults). Not only is it crammed full of advice from author and illustrator heavyweights and industry insiders, it also lists details for all of the major literary agencies and publishers. You might decide to self-publish - it includes advice on that, too - but if you want to secure an agent or publisher, you’ll be able to find out who to contact when you’re ready. It’s brilliant, honestly. If you haven’t already got one, beg, borrow or buy a copy ASAP! And if you're not already familiar with The Spots and the Dots, we recommend getting hold of it immediately if not sooner! Thanks so much to Helen for answering all of our questions – it was fascinating to learn more about the background to this wonderful book.
The Spots and the Dots is published by Andersen Press. If you'd like to find out more about why we love it so much, here's the review we originally shared in November 2020...
A Tale of Two Hillsides
The red Spots and the blue Dots live on either side of a hill. Afraid of one another, they exist separately and never mix. Each tribe believes the other will capture them if they stray too far from their own community. Nobody knows what the others will do, but everyone knows they are "bad through and through."
One day, baby Spot and baby Dot bounce too high and find themselves stuck on top of the hill together. Thanks to this chance encounter, "the world started changing in front of their eyes." The tribes learned they were safe in one another's company, became friends and "from that day onwards, they played and laughed lots."
The Spots and the Dots is cleverly structured so that the same story is told from two different perspectives. When the book is flipped and turned upside down, we see the same events unfold from the point of view of the Dots. Both narratives merge in the middle with a double page spread that reveals the conclusion. This is my children's favourite scene; no matter how often we read it they always get excited when they see all the Spots and Dots together. They love the interesting and innovative design as well as getting to read two books at once.
This wonderful story uses a simple premise to explore complex themes. A powerful parable about prejudice, it stresses the importance of not judging others based on their looks or perceived differences. The Spots and the Dots are essentially the same, but as is often the case with humans, their fear is based on ignorance.
This book demonstrates the harmony that can be achieved by communication and cooperation. Once their prejudices are dismantled, the respective worlds of the Spots and the Dots expand both literally and figuratively. No longer scared, they bounce as high and as far as they like, "and the whole of the hill – to the top! – could be shared."
The terror that each tribe has for those on the other side of the hill has lasted generations. It is instilled in all the children by their parents, but it is the children who ultimately end the cycle of suspicion and paranoia. This celebrates the promise of youth and delivers a hopeful message to the very young by suggesting that even they have the ability to bring about positive change.
Despite tackling a complicated subject, the story and its bright and bold illustrations are extremely child-friendly. The Spots and the Dots are remarkably expressive and manage to convey a variety of emotions through their eyes and mouths alone. The parts where they imagine each other as monsters and play games of mock battles are especially inventive. How the book is laid out and the way both stories merge in the middle is genius.
Author Helen Baugh was a copywriter for more than 20 years before publishing her first children's book in 2014. Helen cites Dr. Seuss and Julia Donaldson as influences. Illustrator Marion Deuchars also has a background in advertising. Marion's clients have included Royal Mail Stamps and Carluccio’s, and her work has won gold and silver awards from the Art Director’s Club, as well as four D&AD pencils.
Both my five-year-old and three-year-old enjoy The Spots and the Dots and it could be read to younger children too. The strong shapes, contrasting colours and gentle rhyming text would also appeal to babies and toddlers. My three-year-old is particularly captivated by this story, frequently requesting it and exclaiming, “It’s the Spots and the Dots!” whenever they see a polka-dot pattern. I expect I will be hearing that for many years to come! The Spots and the Dots is an exceptionally thought-provoking and beautiful book, with an important and relevant lesson at its core. This has "future classic" written all over it.