Coffee with… Susan Meddaugh

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Feb 6, 2013 in Rat News | Subscribe

Mom, if Martha our dog ate alphabet soup, would she speak?” asked Niko, Susan Meddaugh’s seven year-old son in the family kitchen one day. Inspired by his question and their dog’s unique behavior, Meddaugh, an established children’s book author and illustrator, transformed the family pet into the character of Martha, the talking dog, in ”Martha Speaks.”

Today, millions of children and their parents love to read about Martha’s adventures in Meddaugh’s Martha books and watch her on Martha Speaks, the animated PBS show based on the books, which is aimed at enriching children’s vocabulary.

Baristanet contributor Tara Williams talked to the former Montclair resident about Martha and the creative process that goes into writing and illustrating books for kids.

Q:        You grew up in Montclair.

Yes.  I started life at 33 Fairfield Street–the street where Martha and her family live.  Mostly, I lived on Summit Avenue.

Q:        As a child, did you like to draw?

I always loved stories and I always loved to draw.  I did like to read, but mostly I liked to draw my own stories.

Q:        Were your subjects mostly animals?

I just drew little stories.  It wasn’t mostly animals, but occasionally, they included an animal.  Little adventure stories that I would draw out in my head—little characters that I would draw.  I was always encouraged—the art teachers throughout the Montclair schools were just wonderful, as were the English teachers.

Q:        So you stayed in the Massachusetts area after you graduated Wheaton College.

Yes, it was not my intention.  I got a job at a publishing house and I really enjoyed it for almost 10 years.  Then I left to do my own books or anything to pay the rent.  I also married a man who worked at Houghton Mifflin, so I am totally tied to the Boston area (Meddaugh lives in Sherborn, a Boston bedroom community.)

Q:        Since you came from the publishing industry, was it easier to get your books published?

It’s never that easy to get a book published.  I left (working directly in the industry) because I was art directing and talking to a lot of illustrators, and I began to have so many ideas about what they should do and I thought I should leave and do my own work.

So I traveled around a bit to my and other publishers and they liked my ideas.  I ended up back at Houghton Mifflin, but only after traveling to New York and visiting other publishers and getting a good enough of a reaction that I felt like I could do my own books.

Q:        How do you generate ideas for your books?

There are ideas everywhere.  There are so many ideas—something grabs me and I think about it and write it down and maybe it leads to something else, and occasionally, a character like Martha takes over.

I wrote a book called “Cinderella’s Rat” and because we had pet rats, I started thinking about them and that led to the book.  In this case, the two characters, the rats, did take over the story.  It felt like they were telling me, “This is the next step,” and, “This is where we’re going with this story.”  That’s the fun of it—when a character or story starts to tell itself and then you have magic.

It feels right and intuitive—that I’ve got the idea and the story now.  Sometimes it takes a long time and sometimes it comes right out.  There’s no one way to do it, except to intuitively do it.

Q:        Do you test an idea with an audience before writing a book?

No.  I just sit in my little studio room and work on it and laugh and read it again and then wonder, “Am I the only one who is going to laugh at this?”  I had a great editor who always wanted something original from me.  He wanted a picture book and an original idea—he wasn’t thinking of any particular audience.  He wanted you to come up with something that was just your voice and not made to be published for a particular market.

His comment always was, “Too many words!  Show it in the art!”  That’s really the fun of a picture book—you’ve only got 32 pages you need to do something with.  The best part for me is how to figure out how you tell the story through the combination of text and art where you tell the story better in art than words.  To me, it’s like putting together a puzzle.

Q:        Can you share how your collaboration with PBS to make Martha Speaks started?

We started thinking about doing a series years before it started airing in 2008.  Carol Greenwald, the producer for a lot of the children’s programs for WGBH in Boston, who produces Arthur and a number of other things, came to me.

She approached me after “Martha Speaks” was published and asked me if I had any ideas.  At that time, I was doing other things.  It came up again and the timing was right for both of us—for me and for WGBH.

WGBH was looking for an idea that used vocabulary because they had done some studies that indicated that kids whose families don’t read a lot, or use English as a second language, know significantly fewer words than kids who came from families that do read a lot.  It is something that ends up being a disadvantage in school.

So WGBH was looking for an idea that centered around vocabulary—just words you hear and not spelling.  To hear the words in conversations and cleverly place them in definitions without being really dry and didactic.

Martha loves words—very tasty, little words and she was the perfect character and that’s how it started.

Q:        How are you involved with the show?

The Vancouver-based animation studio provided me with a lap top that I can draw on.

First you get a treatment, which sums up what the story will be.  Then you get the drafts polished until you get the final draft.  The text comes from WGBH in Boston then the art and the animation comes from Vancouver.

I see everything they do—from a toothbrush to the background to a character.  The key is to really make it look like my stuff—my style.

Our first season, we started with 80 stories and that came from the Writing Group.  Everything comes through WGBH and me.  It’s been a fascinating collaboration.

Q:        What are the benefits of working with WGBH?

Part of it is the fact that WGBH is local—I can just go into the office very easily.  There were other commercial organizations who expressed interest in making Martha into a movie—one couldn’t come up with a script that worked.  They sent me one and it was awful and they agreed it was awful and it just went away.

There were also offers to turn Martha into a cartoon on TV and I said no. A few people that I talked with said it’s a good that I didn’t do it because who knows what they with do with it.  With commercial interests, they have a certain amount of control over the character.  With WGBH, I did something called the Series Bible where you put down everything about the characters; how they should be; what they should do; what they can’t do; and what they’re going to like.  This really helps.

At times, I worried about how the characters would talk and about how they would define the words—would this be didactic and boring and would that stop the story.  I get to go over things and everybody goes over things and if something seems too arch, then we change it.  I felt like I’ve had the last say on everything, except that, technically, I don’t.

Q:        How do you think parents can encourage their childrens’ creativity?

One thing I would say is not to over schedule them.  If there’s anything I’ve learned about finding ideas, or letting them find me, or even solving problems in a story, it’s to take a walk, let my mind wander, just be receptive to whatever pops into my mind.  Or as another author said, ”Lie down on the bed and look at the ceiling.”  Amazing how it works.

Photos courtesy of Susan Meddaugh.

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