Guess who’s coming to PBS? It’s Martha, the unassuming, loquacious and forthright mutt whose ingestion of alphabet soup turns her into, as one reviewer noted, the “Mr. Ed of the canine world.” Bark recently connected with Susan Meddaugh, Martha’s creator, and Carol Greenwald, WGBH Senior Executive Producer, to learn more about this milestone event.
Bark: Who is Martha? How did you develop this remarkable dog—was there a “bulb going off” moment? Did you immediately run your studio and start sketching?
Which leads me to my son, Niko. I had the right occupation, the right child, the right dog and the perfect moment. I had already put Martha in some of my children’s books, usually just slipping her into the background. She had also found her first co-starring role with Helen in The Witches’ Supermarket. But she wasn’t yet talking. My son, seven years old at the time, was sitting at the table eating alphabet soup. Of course, Martha was right next to him, almost in his lap. It was his creative question—“Mom, if Martha-dog ate alphabet soup, would she speak?”—that put all the pieces together. The personality of the dog, plus Niko’s question, immediately suggested a visual image of the soup letters going into Martha’s mouth and up to her brain. Of course, this required a novel approach to the way the brain is connected to the digestive system.
I did not rush to my studio and immediately sketch out the story. This idea was just the beginning of a story, which would go through a couple of versions before it fell into place. The main question after the initial idea was, what would Martha do or say if she had the gift of gab?
B: How much of this was informed by Martha herself?
SM: Obviously, the personality of Martha is completely inspired by the real dog, and the attitude was already there. Martha would let me know what to do with the story. So what would she do, being Martha? She would be opinionated, outspoken—she would speak for the dog, letting people know what dogs are really thinking. But being a dog, she wouldn’t necessarily know when not to say what was on her mind. In Martha’s world, she is still a dog. The only thing unusual about her is her ability to speak. She’s not a person, and she will always see the world through the eyes of a dog.
B: Have you ever heard of children feeding alphabet soup to their dogs, hoping that their dogs would talk too?
SM: I have heard of that happening, but I’ve heard it from adults who mostly are happy that their children are so taken with a story that they would try that. As for the kids, I think it’s just a wonderful possibility, sort of like the children who ask me, “Did Martha really talk?” I can tell they don’t really believe she spoke, but still, they hold on to the sliver of hope that just maybe she did. Also, it’s quite clear in the books and in the TV series that Skits cannot speak, even after many bowls of alphabet soup. So they are forewarned that even the family’s other dog isn’t bilingual, and that so far, there’s only one Martha.
Carol Greenwald: We heard from a public television colleague that when her son was four and a half, he asked to have Martha Speaks read to him, over and over. When they went grocery shopping, he reminded her to get alphabet soup; she began finding unopened cans of soup on the counter, which she put away, thinking she’d left them out by mistake. And then one day she came into the kitchen and saw her son standing with their standard Poodle, his foot holding Martha Speaks open to the page that shows the cross-section of Martha’s brain filled with letters. With one hand, he held up the dog’s earflap, and with the other, he shone a flashlight into the dog’s ear. Then he looked at his mother and said, plaintively, “But how will I know?”
B: What role does Martha have within her family? And can you tell us why you chose to make her young companion a girl rather than a boy?
SM: As I mentioned, Martha and Helen had already been paired in The Witches’ Supermarket. But although Martha’s personality has been evident since the first book, Helen’s character had to be fleshed out for the TV series. Martha will continue to be Martha: Confident, honest, loving, talking and acting before thinking, sometimes wrong but seldom in doubt. She’s learning about the world (and learning some words along the way). Helen is somewhat shy and cautious, a kid who doesn’t want to be in the spotlight, an artist, and the more sensible part of the duo, who tries to pull Martha back when she goes too far. For her part, Martha will push Helen into new situations and adventures that Helen would ordinarily be reluctant to try. It’s a loving relationship of opposites that works for both of them … usually.
CG: WGBH was attracted to the property specifically because it has a female central character. The majority of cartoons and TV shows for young children have boys at the center. We were thrilled to have a girl.
B: The goal of this series is to expand the vocabulary of its audience. How did you go about doing that? How are the words introduced so that the young viewer will understand their meanings?
CG: Surprisingly, first-grade vocabulary knowledge predicts eleventh-grade reading comprehension. So achieving our educational goal is incredibly important to us. People often assume that when you’re talking about teaching young kids vocabulary, you’re talking about words they are learning to read, like “hot,” “cat” and “top.” However, we’re focused on helping kids learn the meanings of more sophisticated words, so that when they begin reading—and particularly when they move from learning to read to reading to learn—they will understand the meaning of what they are reading. It doesn’t matter if you can sound out “aggravate,” “plot” or “custom” if you don’t know what they mean.
We worked closely with a board of academic advisors to figure out how we could use television to build children’s vocabularies. Because the vocabulary gap between at-risk kids and their more advantaged peers is so great, our advisors encouraged us to incorporate as many words as possible. Thus, we are teaching 800 words the first season (through 40 shows). They also confirmed that the best way to teach vocabulary is by providing context, so we are integrating the words and the definitions into the dialog of the stories, supporting them visually whenever possible, not teaching them in isolation. Because repetition is key to learning vocabulary, each of our words is repeated at least five times in the story, and more than that in the paired story (each episode has two stories) and across the series. We work closely with our content director, Dr. Rebecca Silverman from the University of Maryland, to both choose appropriate words and provide age-appropriate definitions.
B: Besides vocabulary building, what other lessons do you hope your viewers come away with?
CG: We have worked hard throughout the series to depict pet ownership in a positive way, to model good owner behavior. We hope viewers will come away with an appreciation for the important role dogs and all pets play in our lives. We also hope, through the series and our national partnerships, to raise awareness for animal shelters and encourage more families to adopt.
B: In one show, Martha finds herself in an animal shelter and sets out to free the other animals. How did that episode come about?
CG: Susan and her late husband, Harry Foster, have always been very supportive of shelters and humane societies, so when we were brainstorming story ideas, we knew we wanted to do a story about a shelter. Our writers loved the idea of Martha finding herself in the pound because it offered a lot of possibilities—a dog’s-eye-view of the experience. And we were particularly sensitive to the idea of encouraging shelter adoptions once we began reading about the surge in shelter pets post-Hurricane Katrina, and now with mortgage foreclosures.
CG: Houghton Mifflin is re-releasing the “classic” Martha Speaks books this fall, with new editions (the hardcover version of the original Martha Speaks book includes an audio version, and the paperback includes stickers), and they will be publishing tie-in books based on some of the TV scripts beginning fall 2009, which will include tips for families on building vocabulary.
As with all PBS KIDS series, there is a wonderful website, pbskids.org/Martha, on which kids can play games and watch short videos of Martha and her friends, and parents, teachers and caregivers can find out more about the series and curriculum and get educational support materials. All of the games are designed to support the educational goal of the series. In addition, a selection of video clips and Martha episodes is available on PBS’s new broadband service (pbskidsgo.org), so kids can watch Martha online.
The series is also supported by educational outreach activities. Public television stations are hosting community events to celebrate the premiere of Martha. Some stations will be launching “reading buddy” programs, which will pair 4th- and 5th-graders with kindergarteners to share books and vocabulary-building activities in the classroom. WGBH is also working closely with the ASPCA, Intermountain Therapy Animals, humane societies, the American Library Association and other groups to encourage local partnerships with public television stations.
Martha Speaks premiered on PBS KIDS on Labor Day, Monday, September 1. Visit Martha  online for more.
Illustration TM/© 2008 WGBH Educational Foundation. TM/© "Martha" books artwork: Susan Meddaugh