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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Susan Meddaugh
Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine Books (reprint),(1995)
The day Helen gave Martha dog her alphabet soup,
something unusual happened.
The letters in the soup went up to Martha's brain instead of down to her stomach.
That evening, Martha spoke.
--Martha Speaks, Susan Meddaugh, p. 1-3.
Martha, a family dog, is suddenly able to speak after she is given a bowl of alphabet soup to eat. Martha and her family delight in her newly acquired talent, enjoying surprising people when Martha speaks, and they make sure Martha has a bowl of alphabet soup every day. But Martha loves talking so much she won't stop, and sometimes she embarrasses the family by always telling the truth. Her family gets tired of the constant chatter, and one day when Martha won't stop talking, they tell her they wish she'd never learned to talk. A devastated Martha refuses to eat her soup, and won't talk or interact with them--but when a burglar sneaks into the house and she is unable to call for help, she manages to eat some alphabet soup and outwit the burglar, and is redeemed in the eyes of her family. Her appetite for alphabet soup returns, and so does her ability to speak.
This is a delightful, funny fantasy that is thoroughly enjoyable. There is a clear love of words and language that exudes from the story. The story is told through the printed text, as well as speech bubbles and art, and all work well together.
The story begins (in the hardcover edition) on the copyright page, where we see a speech bubble telling a girl sitting at her table that she has to eat her soup, and we see Martha, the dog, peering hopefully up at it. Readers who notice that may find some extra pleasure in the added bit of story, but readers who do not will still find the story satisfying.
Meddaugh's story reads best when both the printed text and the speech bubbles are read, since the speech bubbles add a lot of humor, but it can be read and enjoyed without the speech bubbles. The printed text and speech bubbles play off each other, the text telling the story in a matter-of-fact, calm manner, and the speech bubbles containing expressive, lively, almost irreverent dialogue that depicts Martha as quite a character.
The story moves quickly, as reader interest is snapped up and held with the magical event that the letters from the alphabet soup make Martha talk. The antics that the family encourage Martha to do, and that they clearly enjoy, are fun for the reader, too, as it's easy to see the humor in the situations and the shock on the people who didn't know Martha could talk.
The tension as Martha's continuous and honest dialogue creates problems builds nicely into to the climax where Martha refuses to eat her soup—and the humor is retained, even during this crisis. The tension moves nicely into relief and enjoyment as Martha saves the day and returns to being a talking dog. I would have liked to see Martha actually saving the day, instead of being told how she did that; for me, a small amount of the drama and enjoyment is left out by missing that.
The ending is satisfying and heartwarming, as Martha once again becomes a talking dog and has regained her good graces with her family.
Meddaugh's ink-and-watercolor illustrations are cartoon-like, and this is emphasized by the speech bubbles. Most of the illustrations have no borders, and often are simply the characters and their immediate surroundings which end in soft smudges of paint, or the characters and whatever objects they are using or sitting on, with a lot of white space around them.
The characters are expressive and funny—when Martha is talking non-stop at her family, their hair blows back from the force of her speech, and the mother uses pillows to block her ears, the father uses earmuffs. The illustrations add to the humor of the book, not only for how the characters are drawn, and the clear shock of people being surprised by a talking dog, but also for the extra events that occur only in the illustrations—a cat hissing and clawing when Martha talks, the pizza delivery person dropping the pizza when Martha talks, the cupboard filled to bursting with alphabet soup, and so on.
This is a laugh-out-loud, fun read that takes delight in language and wards. An ultimately heartwarming and satisfying tale that both children and adults can enjoy. Highly recommended.
This is the first book in a series about Martha. This is an older book, but it should be available in your local library, or you can order it online. It's well worth the search!
-Added February 2007
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