20 June 2006

How Martha Speaks speaks to kids

Last month I had the honor of introducing author-illustrator Susan Meddaugh to an audience of the Foundation for Children's Books. A fine lady, and a model for doing much creative work after employment at a publisher.

Susan's character Martha, as her many fans know, is a dog who eats alphabet soup and develops the ability to talk. That's page 5 of the 32 (unnumbered) pages in Martha Speaks, so I'm not giving anything away.

This picture book combines two types of text to tell its story. There's the genre's usual narrative styling: serif type (Century Schoolbook, it looks like) with big leading, no paragraph indents, standard punctuation, lines above and below the artwork, describing action and dialogue in third person ("Martha raced to the kitchen. She barked. She growled.").

And then there are handwritten word balloons, as in cartoons. Their letters expand and contract, their lines bend and bulge. These words even turn red with anger. Most of those word balloons point to Martha, so figuratively her dialogue--her ability to speak--disrupts the staid text.

What Martha says is also disruptive. She talks like a little kid--just a bit younger than readers themselves, I guess. She's got a fine vocabulary, but no sense of propriety. So Martha asks for food, wonders why a man is fat, asks for food, tattles, gives away secrets, asks for food, speaks during TV shows, and wonders when that food is coming along.

Reading Martha Speaks, kids get to feel like grown-ups, seeing what Martha's doing wrong and feeling proud that they're above that. The book's main child character, Helen, is grouped with her parents in the conflict rather than with Martha.

Of course, those young readers (and we older ones) also get to live vicariously through Martha, saying whatever's on our tiny minds.

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