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Transcript from an interview with Susan Meddaugh

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Susan Meddaugh. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Susan Meddaugh

Growing up

I started out writing because I wanted something to illustrate and it turns out that what I like is the story and so that does not separate words and pictures; it's just the story. The flow, I would say, comes from my understanding of how I want a picture book to work, which is to say that the illustrations are telling as much of the story as the words are and neither one is telling the whole story.

In terms of the humor, that's growing up in my family. It's not a huge family, but they made a lot of noise and my parents were very dramatic. They had worked out their Burns and Allen routines and many aunts, twin aunts and relatives around and parties. My brother and I were essentially the viewers, the audience to my family's ongoing activities — talks and dramas.

My favorite story of growing up with my mother… She is very dramatic and once she came in and my brother and I were probably, I don't know 12 and 15, and we're sitting on the couch watching television with our feet on the table, of course. She walks in and she says, "I figured it out. The problem is that I never made you pick up your socks," and then she left. That was it! We thought that was interesting and in the meantime my father tells wonderful stories and he wrote wonderful letters, which is one thing that I just love having — very funny letters, almost like little dramas, little comedies. So it came from them, but being an observer in this particular media.

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Rat and pig

Cinderella's Rat, this is one of those wonderful areas where I have all my cast of characters actually living with me. We had pet rats and so Cinderella's Rat was something that I started thinking about. I started thinking about the rat in that story and the more I thought about it, the more I wondered, "What would be going through that rat's mind, starting out his day as a rat, suddenly being bonked on the head by a fairy godmother, being a person, turning into a person for about 12 hours and then becoming a rat again? What would that do to his brain?"

To me, that's just kind of a funny idea. Then I go in and try to make the story work and have a shape, but the story and this particular one, the rats really took over the story and it was about magic and it was almost magical the way they let me know what the next page was — what the next part of the story was. It was one of the easier books that I've ever put together. And that's magic. That is magic.

Hog Eye, on the other hand was inspired by my son getting on that big yellow school bus when he was five years old. I thought that was just tremendously brave since I did not have to get onto the school bus until high school. I thought there must be some way that I can reassure him — a story, but a reassuring story. Well, gradually I often think, "Well, I've got something in mind and I'm going to do this and then it turns into something else." In this case, instead of being a reassuring story, it turns into a pig who gets off the bus at the wrong spot, gets grabbed by a wolf and talks her way out of it basically because she can read.

Not really a reassuring story that I thought I was going to write and just where does the humor come from — I don't know! I sit back there and you start drawing and you think, "Oh, that's kind of funny!" Then after you've seen it the 18th time you think, "Ah, that's not funny at all." You feel lucky that people are maybe seeing it for the first time.

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The right dog for a story

Martha was an idea that I stole from my son. In order to tell you where Martha came from, I would have to actually tell you the real story of Martha. Martha was a stray. We never saw her as a puppy. She was a very smart stray, though. She wandered into the yard of a friend of ours. She wouldn't leave, thereby forcing our friend to do something with her and she tried. She had a bunch of cats so she could not keep this little dog who was needing a home.

She called us and we went in to take a look and Martha was an absolute mess. We had asked her what kind of dog this was and she said, "Well, she's not cute. She's not a puppy." She said, "She's kind of a Dalmatian beagle mix, I would say." We went in there and Martha was just a mess. So skinny you could see her ribcage, ears hanging down, cuts on her legs, tail hanging down.

And, of course — fleas, fleas, fleas! Millions of fleas! The whole population of probably Eastern Massachusetts! So we took her. The first thing, we got home we discovered that she wasn't house trained, she loved to eat the furniture, she wanted to be with us at all times. If we couldn't take her places, that was when she turned around and tried to destroy the house. There were moments when we thought, "Well, this was not a very good decision." But gradually her real wonderful personality began to come out and we began to discover many, many qualities, her wonderful qualities.

She's very expressive. Plainly has opinions about things. Beautiful. Drawable, very drawable. I wanted to find a book for her. I slipped her into a couple of things, a poem or a book. She actually had a co-starring role with Helen in The Witches Supermarket, but the right book hadn't come up yet.

And then all the stars were aligned. One day, Martha, who had of course early on been a very hungry dog, was sitting next to my son who was seven years old or so and he was eating alphabet soup. Martha trying very hard to get into his lap, Martha trying very hard to share the soup and Niko, my creative seven-year-old said, "Mom, if Martha ate alphabet soup, would she speak?"

That was one of those moments when everything comes together and you think, "I've got the right idea. I've got the right dog and I know how to do this." As I said, I stole it and Martha almost writes herself. I know her personality. I know what she would do. She would speak for the dog and you know the big question is, "What would a dog do, if they suddenly were able to speak?" Of course, they would not stop talking, and Martha being the kind of dog she is, she would have a lot of things to share with people.

I know this because we had another dog named Skits who was very doggy and if my son had said, "Mom, Skits ate alphabet soup. Would he speak?" I don't know, it might not have happened. I think it would have been a very short article, "I like sticks."

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Teaching vocabulary with Martha Speaks

What am I hoping that Martha can do for the series for kids? I've always hoped that the books would be enjoyed by kids, that they'd think they were funny, that they'd enjoy her and that would encourage them to want to read more books. I mean I'd love it if they just read my books, but if they read books, that's what I want — more readers.

Vocabulary is a big point of the series. I am just going to let Rebecca Silverman talk about that because my main concern… Martha is the perfect dog to have all the words and want to learn and want to talk and want to speak all the words, but my main concern has been that the stories be wonderful and that learning words not become something that stops the story so that when the kids are watching the programs, they are enjoying the stories so much that they are picking up words absolutely naturally.

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Being yourself

I think that there are two wonderful personalities that are developed in the show. One is Martha and the other is Helen. Helen's far more developed in the show and they are kind of a loving combination. Martha is the one who maybe pushes Helen a little bit further into areas where she might not ordinarily go. Helen is the one who kind of pulls Martha back when she goes to areas where she shouldn't go. So together, they are a pretty good combination.

Once upon a time, at one of my talks, a person asked me if I was actually speaking through Martha — if Martha was me with four legs and fur. I have to say that Martha is more like someone I would like to be. I would like to be stronger. I'd like to be more confident. Many things that a person who is basically shy would like to be. I think when it comes to kids, the question might be, should they be like Martha and I have to say that kids should simply be themselves. They should be artists, I hope, writers, and definitely readers.

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Susan speaks

It is interesting because here I have a dog who is talking — a forceful, confident, opinionated dog. I have to admit that I have always been very shy. I never spoke in class. I never spoke at work. I never spoke in front of groups. I actually fainted once — I was so terrified!

When the first time Martha got an award, I was asked to speak to a group of about 200 teachers and I, of course, said, "Not, no, no, never, no. No!" Then I thought, "This may never happen again. You better start talking." Because Martha spoke, Susan spoke. It gets to be fun. Of course, being a picture book author/artist/ person, I like to have my visual aids. That also is very helpful because what can a picture book person do without her pictures?

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How parents can encourage reading

What can parents do with reading? To help their children read, to encourage them to read, certainly they should read with their children. Depending on what the book is, it's a lot of fun and you can get caught up in it and at a certain point, your child will say, "Okay, mom. That's it." Or, "Okay dad. I'm going to do it myself now," and you will really feel very sad because you've stopped reading and he doesn't want you to read anymore to him because he can do it himself. It's a wonderful thing — talking, reading, words — very important, as Martha would say.

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An excerpt from Martha Calling

Martha Calling, I guess I should establish this first. Now we know that Martha loves words. She loves every syllable. She loves all words. She loves to talk, but there were three words that Martha hated — no dogs allowed. These words meant that she was never welcome in restaurants or in any of her favorite stores. Meat-is-Us and people were so rude — no dogs allowed. Martha, dashing out of the butcher shop, says, "You'll be hearing from the ASPCA." This was confusing to Martha because when she called the same places on the telephone, people were always polite. On the telephone, they never said, "Hey, are you a dog? I'm hanging up if you're a dog."

"Hello? Meat-is-Us? I'd like to order some meat." "What kind?" "Oh, any kind. Steaks, chops." "How much?" "Lots. Lots of steaks, lots of chops." "Of course, madam. Right away. Charge it?" "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes." A happy butcher. Martha loved the telephone. She could talk for hours. "Arf, arf, arf, woof, woof, woof, hey, it's get… oh you are a bad dog, on the hydrant, really, woof, woof, woof." "Martha, get off the phone!" One day, she entered a contest. "What does the first First Lady have in common with an island off Massachusetts? The first caller with the correct answer will be our grand prize winner."

"I know," says Martha. "I know, I know, I know!" and she gets up. "Martha Washington… Martha's Vineyard… the first name Martha." "That's absolutely correct! You're our big winner. May I have your name please?" "Martha." "Yes, I know that's the right answer. Now if I could have your name?" "Martha!" "Martha won a free weekend for four at the Cozy Come On Inn, her family was thrilled. But when the official notice came in the mail, there was a problem — no dogs allowed."

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The true story of Martha

What I would like to do is draw the real story of Martha. This is the non-fiction story of Martha and this is really what I do. I draw stories — that's what a picture book is. But instead of writing the words now, I'm going to draw the pictures and speak the words. Martha was a stray. I didn't see Martha right after she was born. I didn't see her as a puppy. Somebody just let her go. Somebody just let her out the door and she became a lost dog — hungry, sad. She was looking for someone to take care of her. She was also very smart and she found a friend of ours working in her yard.

Martha — smart dog — walked right up to her, sat down, and refused to move. Our friend did everything you do for a dog who is lost. She called every agency. She put up signs. Nobody wanted this dog, so she called us. We said, "Well, what does this dog look like?" Whe said, "Well, she's not cute. She's not a puppy. She's just kind of a white Dalmatian/beagle combination." We went in and this is what we saw. The first time we saw Martha, her ears hung down, just the way a sad dog's ears hang down. She was so skinny, every single rib showed. Her tail, just hung down, the way a sad dog's tail hangs down. She had cuts on her legs. We didn't know where those came from.

And she had fleas! Thousands and thousands and thousands of fleas! The whole population of fleas in Eastern Massachusetts — possibly the whole state! So, of course, we took her home. When we got home, we discovered some things about Martha. The first thing we discovered about Martha was that she didn't trust us. She didn't trust us for one minute and she decided that the way to make sure that we didn't leave her, that we didn't get tired of her, that we didn't do the same thing to her that had already been done to her, was to stay with us at all moments. With this in mind, she followed us everywhere.

She followed us up the stairs, in the kitchen — her favorite place. She slept in the bed, thereby starting a tradition of dogs sleeping in our bed and she was very careful to make sure she knew where we were at all times. Occasionally, we had to go some place without her and when we did this, we'd have to sneak out of the house. If we succeeded, when we got to the other side of the door, we would hear Martha racing across the floor, racing across the floor — Boom! — against the door and this is what we would hear. This is how she would look. "Don't go!" That might have been the first time I heard her talk.

Then the thing that would happen is, once she realized that we'd gone out without her, she would turn right around and start destroying the house. Well, another thing we learned about her… we took her to the vet, got rid of her fleas and the first thing the vet said was, "Ah, a pit bull cross." But we discovered the morning that we came down and found our two-year-old sitting with Martha and Martha had clothespins on both ears and she was grimacing, but she wasn't doing anything else. And we realized this is a great dog.

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Food

The other thing we discovered about Martha when we first had her was that she had missed a lot of meals and she was hungry and she ate everything. She ate everything. She ate vegetables. She ate salads. She ate your worst vegetable — brussel sprouts. I mean, that's mine. The worst thing she did was, one day I came down, and she had eaten a whole one pound package of Hershey's Kisses. Now, I can do that, I can do that!

But I usually don't eat them with the wrappers on and she had consumed the Hershey's Kisses and the tin foil and all. Now she recovered from that, but she put on a lot of weight, that's for sure! Pretty soon, this is what Martha began to look like. Martha, from the rear. Gradually, Martha slimmed down and calmed down and we really began to love her and we began to see her absolutely wonderful qualities. Martha truly was a combination of many, many dogs, the all American dog — everything in there.

There was pit bull, but there was also everything else. I think that Martha's shape came into my brain, almost by osmosis, and I just wanted to draw her. I wanted to put her in a book. And that great chest! When she was happy, her ears are up. When she was sad, well, you've seen that. When she was angry, oh boy! There was no angrier dog then Martha.

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Alphabet soup

I began to sneak Martha into books. I would put her on the wall. If you look at Tree in Birds, I bet you can find a portrait of Martha. There's Books of Poetry, I put her in those. Nobody seemed to object. I finally found the first story for Martha and her pal, Helen and that was called The Witch's Supermarket. Martha did not like that particularly because she had to go as Cat, but she put up with it.

Then the glorious moment — the moment when all things aligned — my career, my dog, my son, and the perfect idea. Sitting at the table, my son was eating alphabet soup. He was seven years old and he had Martha right next to him, sucking in her stomach, which was very hard — that great Mae West chest. He said, "Mom, if Martha ate alphabet soup, would she speak?" Glorious moment! This is the image that flew into my brain immediately.

I thought, "Yes. If Martha ate the soup and Martha being Martha, she's smart, she's opinionated, she's beautiful, she's drawable, she's definitely very strong woman — would she speak? She would speak for the dog! Of course she would speak. She would eat the alphabet soup. The letters instead of going down to her stomach would go up to her brain and as soon as she had 26, all 26, then she would speak. And she would speak and speak and speak and speak."

I stole that idea and generally speaking, what I like to say is that guys seven, eight, nine, ten, six, five… you have the best ideas and I am the living proof because I have had so many wonderful ideas from my son and he was seven years old. So no excuses next time you write a story. If you don't want to write a story and you have a wonderful idea, send it to me and I will write a story.

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"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." — Jorge Luis Borges