A Conversation With Susan Meddaugh and Tolon Brown
By Carol Greenwald
Carol Greenwald, WGBH’s Senior Executive Producer for Children’s Programming, speaks with children's book authors Susan Meddaugh and Tolon Brown. Meddaugh is the creator of Martha Speaks, the wildly popular series of books about Martha the talking dog. Martha Speaks is now a public television show, seen on WGBH. Tolon Brown produces both Arthur and Postcards from Buster. For more Kids Media Matters, click here >
CG: What was your favorite part of having your characters turned into television shows? Your least favorite?
SM: I think my favorite part was seeing for the first time how Martha and Helen, in particular, had so perfectly made the transition from book to TV and come alive in animation. Both story and art conveyed a wonderful understanding of these characters. Having Martha blabbing away in another medium was fantastic. Least favorite, in hindsight, was that I didn’t make the character John the Dalmatian look more like my childhood Dalmatian. I just didn’t know enough about what I could do at that early point in the development of the series.
TB: It’s been really fun to see the characters come to life on television. And because Arthur’s world on the show is bigger and more complex, my Dad and the writers are able to expand the role of the supporting characters from the books. Arthur may be the star, but everyone has a different favorite. The show has allowed kids to discover and identify with the other characters and that’s been very exciting to see.
As far as the “least favorite” part goes, that’s changed over time. In the beginning I think there was some fear that the television show might overshadow the books. Thankfully that never happened and it turns out the show actually inspired kids to read even more books! Nowadays our least favorite part of the show is that we can’t keep up with all the great story ideas people give us. Kids, parents and educators constantly deliver some of most amazing thoughts for future episodes and it is truly frustrating that we can’t use them all. But, please, don’t stop. Ever.
CG: How did your own families influence your work?
SM: My family has influenced my work on every possible level. I could go back a few generations, but will stick to the immediate group. My husband introduced the concept of “More is More” when it comes to animals, especially dogs. But we also had parakeets, turtles, tortoises, lizards, pet rats, ferrets and other members of the rodent family, every one a potential character for my stories. Martha was our first dog, and Skits was the second. More would follow. My son Niko, at age 7, was the one who asked the all-important question: “If Martha-dog ate alphabet soup, would she speak?” And of course Martha herself had such an interesting personality and drawable shape, that she practically demanded her own story.
TB: Wow, a better question might be; how didn’t your own family influence your work? Of course, there is the now legendary story that Arthur is the happy result of a bedtime story told to yours truly. This is only partially true. Yes, the fabled bedtime story did, in fact, occur and I was, indeed, the recipient. My only problem with this story is that it makes me sound like I was the inspiration for Arthur. I wasn’t. If you’re looking for that you need to go much further back to my Dad’s grandmother, Thora (sound familiar Arthur fans?). She was the person who inspired him to follow his dreams and become an artist. Family also plays an important part in the books and shows as well. My Dad often uses stories from his own childhood, friends and his kids as the framework for what ends up on the page or screen. My father is a tremendous inspiration to me. He might be the most creative, passionate and hardworking person I know. So, as you might imagine, I feel a certain responsibility to maintain the integrity of these characters.
CG: What are your favorite stories (from either the books or television series)? Where did the inspiration for those stories come from?
SM: There are so many stories in the TV series that crack me up, it’s impossible to pick one. Of the original books, probably Martha Speaks because it sets the tone, the personality of Martha, and creates the world she lives in - a basically real world situation with a real dog whose only unusual trait is her ability to talk. The TV series, and books based on the series, continue to be faithful to the original books in tone and character, while expanding on Martha’s world in a wonderful and occasionally surprising way.
TB: My Dad has too many favorite stories to list, so I won’t even try. For me, I would have to go with, Arthur’s Eyes, Arthur’s Halloween and Arthur’s Underwear for the books. Arthur’s Eyes is loosely based on my own experience getting glasses as a kid, so I feel a bit of nostalgia for that one. Yes, I did not like wearing my glasses. And, yes, I walked into the girls’ bathroom by mistake. But, like Arthur, I eventually found a pair of glasses that suited me and discovered that actually being able to see things is helpful – especially when crossing the street. For the television show I have many, many favorite episodes. But I work on the show so I might be a little biased. As a major Red Sox fan, Curse of the Grebes always stands out for some reason. And The Squirrels episode always makes me chuckle. Of course there’s also Brain Gets Hooked, Do You Speak George?, and No Acting Please… Okay, I have to stop before I list 90% of the series.
CG: Have you heard any good feedback from parents on their kids reactions/connections to Arthur and Martha?
SM: What I am hearing is that children love Martha. And, judging from some of the feedback, there are a lot kids who are feeding their dogs alphabet soup. Maybe one of them will actually speak, but I like to remind them that even Skits was unable to talk after many bowls of soup. I do hear that very young kids are surprising their parents with the sophisticated words they are suddenly using, and using correctly. At a bookstore this summer, a girl told me that she loved Martha, and her father piped in, “So what was the word you liked today?” He was obviously enjoying what she was learning from a show she loved watching.
TB: Have we ever! Maybe the best thing about being involved with Arthur is that we get to hear about the many positive ways he impacts people’s lives. My Dad’s mailbox is constantly jam-packed full of heartfelt letters and drawings from all over the world. It’s actually pretty amazing and it gives us more than enough inspiration to keep doing what we do. Thank you, thank, you and, again, we thank you! It means a lot to everyone who works on
CG: What are some of the tips that you give to aspiring young writers and illustrators?
SM: Because my 7 year old gave me the idea for Martha Speaks, I feel confident telling young people that I know for a fact that they have wonderful and imaginative ideas for stories. Creativity and imagination are gifts that kids have in spades, and I always want to encourage them to give these gifts free rein. Originality rules whether they write stories or draw stories. I encourage them to look around their own lives. There are ideas everywhere, and so many ways to go with them -- a true story, or a wild and crazy story, or a story that starts with something real and becomes something wilder, or funnier, or just different when they add their imagination. That’s pretty much how I do my books.
TB: Write. And then rewrite. In fact, E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little said, “the best writing is rewriting.” It’s almost impossible to nail a story on the first pass, so expect to put some work in. Don’t let that get you down, though, because it can be really fun work. There’s nothing like the feeling you get after creating something, whatever that might be, so the sweat is well worth the time and effort.
CG: Do you have a memorable or funny story about working on the television series?
SM: There are so many ways that Martha Speaks offers advice about dogs, including training, people might expect my real dogs to behave, or learn to behave, just as Skits does in one of the stories. The running joke in my life is how completely untrained my dogs are, and how many times I have been at events with expert dog trainers since the show has been aired. With one occasional exception, (my stray dog with baggage), they are all out of control in an enthusiastic loving way. Whether they're greeting people at the door, lounging around on the furniture, or providing 3-dog warmth on a cold New England night, I have more or less accepted that this is the way of my house. I have a feeling it would take a magic potion to change the behavior of the ones who live here, and that includes me.
TB: There are lots of funny stories about working on the show. That’s probably because we get to work with so many talented and funny people. But I think my favorite might be when my Dad was trying to fly home after winning an Emmy award for Arthur. Airport security almost didn’t let him get on the plane because they thought the little pointy wings on the gold statue looked “dangerous.”
CG: How do you think the two shows are similar/how are they different?
SM: Both TV shows are based on a series of original books. What the books have in common are main characters who are just right for shows with themes that WGBH had in mind. Martha and Arthur are both fully developed characters with personalities of their own. Their stories are fun, and not obviously didactic while still making their points in a way that doesn’t interfere with the story. One other area where Martha and Arthur are similar is in the way that they evolved in the way they were drawn from book to book. Kids can check the original books to see how they changed. Where they differ is in their raison d’etre, what WGBH/PBS is hoping to convey. In Martha’s case it’s vocabulary, which makes her the perfect spokesdog, as she loves words, and having them makes her life so much better. Arthur focuses on helping young kids deal with social issues, relationships, and family.
I have witnessed first hand the immense popularity and appeal of Marc Brown’s Arthur, most memorably years ago at a school book fair which included a group of authors who were signing their books. Marc’s line of kids went around the library, down the hall and out the front door of the school. Now Martha has followed Arthur from books to PBS, and I hope that kids will feel the same way about Martha the dog as they always have about Arthur the aardvark.
TB: I love Martha Speaks. My youngest daughter, Isabella, and I always giggle a lot when we watch it together. And that might be the highest complement I can give anything. We love to laugh! That’s definitely something we try to bring to Arthur as well. Of course, the commitment of PBS to provide quality, fun and educational programming for kids also shines through in both programs. But, again, I might be a little biased.
As far as differences go; we have more talking animals.
About Susan Meddaugh
Susan Meddaugh was born and raised in Montclair, New Jersey. Upon graduating from college, Susan worked briefly for an advertising agency in New York City and then moved to Boston, where she worked at a publishing company for ten years, first as a children’s book designer and later as art director. During this time she illustrated her first picture book, Good Stones, written by Anne Epstein. The experience inspired her to strike out on her own as a freelance illustrator and author/illustrator of children’s books.
Susan is the creator of many humorous and inventive books for children, including the wildly popular tales about Martha the talking dog. She has also illustrated numerous books for such authors as Eve Bunting and John Ciardi. Martha Speaks was included on the New York Times Best Illustrated List in 1992. In 1998 Susan was the honored recipient of the New England Book Award, given by the New England Booksellers Association to recognize a body of work.
Susan is currently involved in a whole new endeavor: Martha the talking dog can now be seen and heard in the PBS TV series called—what else—“Martha Speaks.”
Susan lives in Sherborn, Massachusetts, surrounded by dogs. The pack now includes Kaiser (a 98 pound black lab from a shelter), Oats (a pug who needed a new home, and now has a role in the PBS series), and Dudley (a stray dog abandoned at a Georgia gas station). Susan’s house obviously has “decor by dog.”
About Tolon Brown
Tolon Brown is the producer at Marc Brown Studios for both “Arthur” and “Postcards from Buster” series. His father, Marc Brown, is Executive Producer. The shows are produced with WGBH in Boston and Cookie Jar Entertainment.
Best known as Arthur's creator, author/illustrator Marc Brown has been working with the beloved aardvark for over twenty-five years. Born one night when Brown was telling a bedtime story to his son, Arthur soon evolved into the book Arthur's Nose, published in 1976. Since then, Brown has written and illustrated more than thirty Arthur and D.W. books, and has illustrated many other books -- including one with his wife, author/illustrator and psychologist, Laurie Krasny Brown.
In 1994 WGBH and PBS approached Marc Brown about the possibility of adapting The Arthur books to a television series. The series has received 17 Emmy nominations and won 6. Arthur also received the George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting. The phenomenal success of Arthur recently led to a spinoff series celebrating the diversity of America's children, Postcards From Buster. The new series just received 2 Emmy nominations and a rapidly growing audience on PBS. The format of the series is a groundbreaking combination of animation and live action.
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