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Straight From the Dog's Mouth

Authors: When Martha talks, everybody buys her books. That is, they're buying Susan Meddaugh's stories, which feature a pooch who barks in a language we all understand.

November 21, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHERBORN, Mass. — Admit it. You have recently talked to your dog. What's more, your dog has talked back.

But has your dog initiated a conversation of late? ("Feed me now" does not count as conversation.) Has your dog, for example, talked in detail about his or her puppyhood? Has your dog ordered out for pizza? Has your dog offered insightful political opinions?

Well, perhaps it's time you introduced your dog to Martha, a pit bull mix who just might be persuaded to share some of her favorite food--alphabet soup--with your pooch. That is the stunningly obvious--and equally clever--premise of the "Martha" trilogy created by artist-author Susan Meddaugh for Houghton Mifflin. Martha eats leftover alphabet soup, and instead of going down to her stomach, the letters go up to her brain.

"Isn't it time for my dinner?" Martha demands that evening, in fearsomely grammatical contrast to the "woof!" heard in less literate homes.

The idea for "Martha Speaks" (1992) came from a throwaway comment from Meddaugh's then-7-year-old son, Niko, who wondered what would happen if their dog ate alphabet soup. Martha was one of two dogs in the family, a stray who appeared in a friend's garden and refused to leave. She was 8 months old, too skinny, flea-ridden and not at all cute.

"So I just tremendously enjoy the fact that she is winning all these awards and has been translated into all these foreign languages," Meddaugh said.

In four short years, the "Martha" books have become what publishers refer to--generally with pride, often with envy--as a phenomenon. More copies of "Martha Blah Blah" were shipped by Houghton Mifflin this fall than any other title on its adults' or children's lists. Publishers balk at disclosing exact sales figures, but a spokesman said the "Martha" series has sold well more than 360,000 copies to date.

Meddaugh, who is in her 40s (which sounds so much better than the 280 or so she would be in dog years), is a children's publishing veteran, having landed a job as a children's book designer at Houghton Mifflin straight out of Wheaton College. As a college student, Meddaugh fancied herself the reincarnation of Edgar Degas. She painted large, depressing canvases with titles like "Ennui." In publishing, she urged would-be book illustrators to take the leap and create books of their own. Finally it occurred to her to heed her own advice.

Somewhere around Meddaugh's fifth title, her carefully controlled style made a radical shift. The over-the-top quality that suddenly appeared in her stories and drawings coincided with Niko's birth and toddlerhood, a time when many women find their lives have taken on over-the-top tendencies. "I didn't have as much time to labor over the books," Meddaugh explained. "It made me learn to trust my intuition much more."

The symptoms crystallized when Meddaugh wrote her own jacket copy for "Hog-Eye" (1995), a story about a little girl who loves to embellish the truth. "Susan Meddaugh, gorgeous and younger than you are, has won the Newbery, the Caldecott, a Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature, not to mention the Miss Teen America crown," Meddaugh's jacket notes began. "She lives in Paris when she's not in Rome, with her 23 children all under the age of 10. A successful lawyer, she devotes her spare time to volunteer work for world peace, the Restore Wolves to the North Woods Foundation, and Free the Pigs."

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The "Martha" series turned over-the-topness into a children's literary genre. A dog who speaks perfect English (or French, Norwegian or Japanese, depending on the translation) after eating alphabet soup made so much sense that Meddaugh had no trouble making the leap to Martha as canine civil rights activist. "Martha Calling" (1994) invites serious reconsideration of the words "No Dogs Allowed." And in "Martha Blah Blah" (1996), our canine heroine takes on an unscrupulous Granny (of Granny's Soup Co.) who has decided to cut costs by eliminating some of the letters in her canned alphabet soup.

The latter feat won kudos for Martha from the Wall Street Journal, which praised the family dog for battling the corporate demons of downsizing. Meddaugh, meanwhile, had no idea she was writing about downsizing. "I thought I was writing a 32-page story about a dog who learns to talk."

Meddaugh had much the same reaction to the professor from Virginia who sent a treatise hailing Martha as a true dog for the '90s. "Observe the irony of the parents behind the staircase," the professor wrote, sending Meddaugh straight to her own book so she could observe the irony.

From her book-strewn living room in this wooded, horsy suburb west of Boston, Meddaugh can also observe the antics of Skit, a male dog who generously would be described as golden-something-or-other. Skit lives to fetch, a passion that forever eluded the more intellectual Martha.

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