By Ted Nesi '07
Since 1978, Susan Meddaugh '66 has written and illustrated 20 of her own children's picture books and illustrated 19 books for other authors. Meddaugh is best known for her six stories about Martha, a dog who gains the ability to speak by eating alphabet soup. The character was based on Meddaugh's own dog, Martha. The idea came to her when her son Niko, who was 7 at the time, looked up while eating lunch and asked: "Mom, if Martha ate alphabet soup, would she speak?"
Martha Speaks, Meddaugh's first book with Martha as the main character, sold very well after it was published in 1992, and The New York Times named it one of the Best Illustrated Children's Books of the Year. Boston Magazine soon picked Martha as one of the city's up-and-coming celebrities. The distinction led to an invitation to the magazine's swanky annual party-which Meddaugh and her husband attended, with the real Martha the dog in tow.
Martha's (and Meddaugh's) star is set to rise further with the national television debut of a new animated television series, also called Martha Speaks, based on the books. It began airing on PBS KIDS this September. The series is produced by WGBH Boston from the same team who brought Arthur and Curious George to public television, and by Vancouver's Studio B Productions.
Meddaugh has been intimately involved in the series' creation-a five-year process-and has felt both energized and overwhelmed by the project. "I've never had so much work in my life!" said the 63-year-old writer.
Carol Greenwald, the senior executive producer of children's programs at WGBH Boston, has high hopes for the new series. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hope that kids will find it," she said. "I have a lot of faith in Martha. I think she's such a great character."
The Martha books have become a mainstay on the bookshelves of homes and libraries across the country, with nearly a million copies sold. "It's a very gratifying career," Meddaugh said during an interview at her home in the suburbs outside Boston. She lives with her son and four rambunctious dogs who have the run of the place.
Greenwald first asked Meddaugh about doing a television series based on the books nearly a decade ago, but at the time she demurred. (Others also approached her, including Disney and HBO.)
By 2003, however, Meddaugh felt the timing was right. Coincidentally, Greenwald and PBS were looking for a new children's show that could also build the vocabulary skills of 4- to 7-year-olds-a key focus of the U.S. Department of Education, which is partly funding Martha Speaks. And what better vocabulary teacher than a talking dog?
"Boy," Greenwald said, "to me, those two were just meant for each other."
Meddaugh was initially concerned that the vocabulary definitions would get in the way of the narrative. "I was worried that they would interrupt the flow, but WGBH has done a really excellent job of making the definitions a natural part of the story," she said.
Stories have always been a part of Meddaugh's life, ever since her childhood in Montclair, N.J. Her father viewed the world with a wonderful sense of humor, she said, while her mother was an avid movie fan with a bit of the flair for the dramatic.
"She'd read and she'd watch movies-she didn't care a fig about housework," Meddaugh said, with a laugh.
Painfully shy as a child, Meddaugh found an outlet in art. At Wheaton she majored in French, but what she remembers most fondly are her studio art classes with two "absolutely wonderful" married assistant art professors, Joyce and Melvin Zabarsky. And with only a handful of studio art students at the time, she said, "We had private lessons, essentially, for two years."
After college, Meddaugh landed a job at Houghton Mifflin in Boston, working for Walter Lorraine, the legendary children's book editor. There, she worked as a designer of children's books.
Working at Houghton was an on-the-job education in the making of books for children, particularly the magic of the picture book. Meddaugh points to an afternoon in the '70s when she came across a copy of H.A. Rey's Curious George.
She remembered reading the book as a child, but as an adult, wondered about the story's amazing staying power. What was the apparently timeless appeal of the little monkey? Then, flipping through the pages, she came to the simple drawing of Curious George holding a fistful of colorful balloons. Something about the image transported her back to her 6-year-old self and the feeling of being drawn completely into the world created by H.A. Rey.
It was a moment she never forgot. (Indeed, when the most recent Martha book was published four years ago, Publishers Weekly declared: "Meddaugh does for dogs what H.A. Rey does for monkeys.")
After a decade of designing other people's books, Meddaugh decided to strike out on her own, first as an illustrator and then as an author, too.
It was during that time Meddaugh met the man who would become her husband, Harry Foster. He was a natural history editor at Houghton who worked with Jane Goodall and Roger Tory Peterson, among others.
Foster died of a brain tumor last year, after a long illness. Working on the television show has given Meddaugh something to focus on as she deals with her loss. "It is exciting work and was a welcome distraction," she said. "Absolutely."
Currently, Meddaugh serves as a creative producer on every aspect of the series, from scripts to designs to rough cuts. She is also working on a chapter book-her second-and says there may be more Martha books in the future, although she makes no promises.
"Somehow, it has evolved that I'm doing what I really love to do-making stories," she said. "And it's almost an accident, or maybe it's a natural progression of interests, decisions and timing."
She marvels at the success that has come her way thanks to the real Martha, who passed away in 1996. "You wonder, how can this happen?" she said. "You adopt a stray dog, and she takes you on this really amazing ride. I'm lucky. Very, very lucky."
Ted Nesi '07 is an award-winning reporter at the Providence Business News. Do you have a comment about this story? E-mail the Quarterly at firstname.lastname@example.org.