The story “Martha Speaks” is a beloved children’s book about a dog that eats alphabet soup and then gains the ability to talk. On Wednesday April 9, Wheaton was lucky enough to have the brains behind the idea, Susan Meddaugh ’66, come and share her story.
A Wheaton alum, Meddaugh majored in French, but was interested in studio art, a major that didn’t exist at Wheaton until 1965. She graduated with a degree in French Literature and Fine Arts and went on to work in a bookstore in the children’s literature section. Meddaugh knew she was meant to write and draw, after taking an aptitude test that told her that music, art, and writing were her strengths.
Meddaugh later went on to work in advertisement before being offered a position at Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company. She was introduced to the Assistant Art Director and knew that was the job she wanted. The director called her one day and offered her the job, which she immediately took. During her time at Houghton Mifflin, Meddaugh illustrated a handful of books, before deciding to break out on her own into the children’s literature world.
After a successful ten years as the Assistant Art Director, Meddaugh married the natural history editor for adult books and they had a child together, who would eventually inspire many of Meddaugh’s stories.
All of the books Meddaugh wrote were based off of events from her personal life. The many pets she and her family had were significant characters in her books. The family rats took over the story of “Cinderella’s Rats,” and dogs Martha and Skits would eventually become household names as part of the “Martha Speaks” series.
Martha was a Dalmatian/Pit Bill/Beagle mix that warmed the hearts of everyone she met. She was “expressive and intelligent” according to Meddaugh. One day when Meddaugh’s son was eating alphabet soup, he looked at his mother and asked, “if Martha ate alphabet soup, could she speak?”
This question inspired Meddaugh to write about what would happen if Martha could speak, and this is how the “Martha Speaks” series was born. After a highly successful story developed about talkative Martha, Meddaugh and her family added a new addition not only to the story, but to their family. Skits the dog joined her family and would eventually become a character in the series. Skits had a different personality than Martha, which added contrast to the story.
Meddaugh was approached by WGBH about possibly turning the “Martha Speaks” series into a television show, something Meddaugh could have never imagined. She agreed, but there had to be a “Bible according to Martha”, which consisted of a list of things that could never change about the original story. For example, Martha had to be the only animal on the show that had the ability to speak.
The process was not easy, but Meddaugh enjoyed it. She had to approve every detail that went into the production, such as the toothbrush that a character would use, or the color of the house the family lived in, which was tedious at times.
When going over character design and set design, Meddaugh had to be sure she stuck to her vision. Although she did not have every detail planned out, she knew how she wanted certain things to be.
“This is my story, I can do anything I want with it,” Meddaugh said. Some things were just wrong when she looked at them, such as the first draft of the main character Helen. With careful change, each and every detail began to look exactly how Meddaugh wanted.
One interesting fact about the show was how every person who worked on the story, and their dogs, were somehow incorporated into the show. However, their characters did not necessarily have to be in true form, Meddaugh’s character was a dinosaur in one episode.
The journey from their kitchen table to the big screen was not easy, but well worth it, according to Meddaugh. She now hopes to take some time off from writing, but is open to inspiration for a new story.
When asked by one of the people on the set, “Is Martha you?” Meddaugh replied with the answer that captured the essence of her journey:
“No. Martha’s who I wish I were.”