Teachers page

Introduction for Teachers, Educators, Parents


Thank you for your interest in my book. Following is a short background about my work with kids.

In 1972 I co-founded, with my friend Lynn Rubright, a childrens' theater-dance company in St Louis, Missouri.  At the time it was called Metro Theater Circus; it is now Metro Theater Company. We performed theater-dance pieces in schools, and after the performances we went back to the classrooms to work with the students. 

 MTC is an amazing company, and is still going strong 40 years later.  It was run, until last year, by two friends, artists, and educators, whom I have been priviledged to know for over 40 years, Carol North and Nick Kryah.

 When we were first starting to visit schools throughout America with our Theater-Dance-Music pieces, we made sure that the schools always built in time for the 6 performers to visit in the classrooms, with the aim of heightening and extending the theatre experience.  We talked, asked questions, played games and did short projects together.  We also ran many teacher workshops after school and provided study guides for every performance.  In the evenings, I taught dance and drama in the Master of Arts Teaching program at Webster University.

After changing careers and living and working in London as a writer for kids and adults (my poetry book for kids, MUD, MOON, and , ME was published by Orchard Books in the UK and Holton Mifflin in the US) and publisher for many years, I moved to an old farm house in France and, inspired by the magical surroundings, I found myself drawn once again to writing for children. That is how I came to write Journey Back to the Great Before.

                                           THE PROCESS OF WRITING THE BOOK

During the seven plus years it took to write the book, my mind was  filled with pictures of young people reading the story.  What would make them stop and think, or smile, or gasp?  It kept me going.  I wanted my audience to come with me on this incredible journey.  But, more importantly, I wanted to travel into the mind of my audience, to see where they might take me.

I posed  big questions about life, because after all, kids are intensely concerned about the the 'whys' and 'how comes' and 'what happens next'.  

I remembered what I had learned a performer for children all those years ago: that is if a child wiggles in his seat while the show is going on, then the fault is with the show and not the child.  So I kept experimenting with words to find a way to avoid that happening with my book.

I grew playful with language and at the same time was hard on myself. My goal was for each sentence to be both brief and rich enough at the same time in order to create a clear mental picture for the reader.

 To develop a strong narrative drive and carry the plot forward, I played with concepts, with words, with numbers, with characters, with settings.  I created links between apparently disparate disciplines like poetry and science, art and mathematics, philosophy and music. In every chapter of the book, problems are developed to be solved by the characters in what could only be extraordinary ways; in ways where connections have to made between things that one wouldn't normally put together.  Because, after all, an arts education is essentially a creative problem solving education.

                                       ABOUT THE BOOK

The Journey Back to the Great Before is a novel intended for children from 8 to 12 and crossing gently to Young Adults.  It is, first of all, a book of big themes embracing an eclectic mix of science, nature, myth, and magic.  The message is concern about the ultimate fate of the planet which we share with the animals.  

The book celebrates the emotional intellegence of children , and uses a language style which is 'a good stretch', while being at the same time compelling, playful, fun, poetic, and not to mention from time to time, filled with episodes of totally ridiculous humour. It might be called magic realism.

The various points of view of the characters - the mother and father, their two siblings aged nine and eleven, and a cast of more than twenty-five animals - allow for a range of discussions about all manner of things, artistic, literary, scientific and spiritual.

Underpinning the story are a series of nine parable-like challenges which the Jolicoing family must undertake in order to fully understand the language of the animals and start the ultimate Journey Back to the Great Before.  

Many social issues that children face all the time are touched upon in the book; one-upsmanship, bullying, selfishness, jealousy, envy, snobbishness, trust, friendship, love, sadness, fear, etc.

There are interesting discussions to be had with your students.  Central to all of them is its principal theme; the fate of the great planet which we share with the animals.

Poetry is tucked away throughout the book. You can go on a poetry hunt with your students to find those metaphores and similes.

Below are a few ideas to encourage poetry writing

 Kids Writing Poetry







It seems tough at first - writing a poem - and getting started is the tricky part. A good idea is to create a poetry culture in your class/school. Read poems together. Put some on walls. Make music and drawings with some. Make a poetry tree. Hang up favorites. These activities create a natural transition towards getting kids of all ages writing their own.

There are a number of interesting poetry anthologies for young readers out there, books for teaching kids to write poetry, and also a few wonderful poetry websites. If you want any recommendations, just email me.

Following are some good beginning exercises which build a structure for kids so that they can start creating their own mental pictures and begin to find their own voices. This is important. We are aiming always for concrete visions. I remember my excellent poetry teacher at Washington University, Donald Finkle, saying over and over: “make it concrete … make it specific ... cut out the fluff words.”


Special Note: make a keep off sign for a selection of lazy words that don’t contribute much to describing things - words like beautiful, nice, cute, awesome, cool, bad, wow, etc. Later we can find ways to use them, too.

PROMPT 1: Each student makes a list of all the things s/he can remember from her/his home. This can take 5 minutes, with the class writing without stopping. I use this technique a lot to encourage writing fluency.

NEXT have each student find a hole in space to say a word out loud. At first this may be chaotic, but classes quickly get there and exercises like this encourage both a secure sense of self and a collegiate atmosphere. Depending on age, these things can then be written down on the board or on paper.

Special note: this exercise can be done with all kinds of other environments, depending on age. For instance, in the garden, in the woods, outdoors at night, on the beach, under the ocean, up in space, in another time.

PROMPT 2: Together with the class, make a long list of descriptive words, including:

SIZE WORDS: e.g. big, small, tiny, thin, enormous, long, short.

COLOR WORDS: e.g. red, blue, orange, yellow. Later you can have a day of fun with lists of great words for colors like azure, marine blue, sea green, poppy red….

SPACIAL WORDS: e.g. high, low, fat, skinny, crooked, straight, curvy.


TEXTURAL WORDS: e.g. soft, hard, scratchy, velvety, sharp, smooth, gentle, sticky.

MOVING WORDS: e.g. wiggly, slow, fast, whizzing, whirring, running, hopping, jumping, strolling.

SOUND WORDS: e.g. loud, noisy, banging, quiet, whizzing, ringing, tapping. This is a good moment to introduce alliterative sound words that sound like what they really are … buzzing, whirring, whooshing.

SMELL WORDS: e.g. sweet, sour, disgusting, moldy, perfumed.

APPEARANCE WORDS: e.g. shiny, dirty, grungy, smudgy, clean, neat. 

This can be an ongoing class list that can be added to every day as new descriptive words are found - a good way to spin your poetry thread through other curriculum areas.

PROMPT 3: Ask the class to write 3 descriptive things about each object with a color always included. This is a good moment for students to start their own favorite word notebooks, which can lead to favorite phrase notebooks, etc. Now use three of those words  in a phrase to describe something in your home.

The bed is blue, big, bouncy


The bouncy, big, blue, bed


The bed





Choose the same objects and make the descriptions the OPPOSITE of what the object is really like:

The dog is orange, quiet, and hopping


The velvet purple jumping plate


The table





Have the class write out a group long list of house things with crazy descriptions in 7 minutes. Then you can play the hole in space game and they can call out things from their lists. Much fun.


Make up a list of verb or doing phrases about things the kids do everyday in their homes. This can be either written or oral - or even done as a charade.

Eat breakfast

Read a book

Laugh with my sister

Listen to a story


Insert any 2 crazy descriptive words from your list in the phrase. This is best done individually on paper.

Eat a wiggly pink breakfast

Read a huge curly book

Laugh a scratchy laugh


Make up a zany way of putting all the words together in 3 lines. You might at this stage want to do a few group examples before heading the class off to work on their own. They can start with one which they recite to each other. Then they can go on do create more of their own. 

Line 1 Descriptive:

My wiggly soft yellow shoe

Line 2 Action:

Ate a huge shiny breakfast

Line 3 Action using the prompt ‘and then’:

And then

Listened to a whirring fat story

And there you have it. Not really a poem as such. But totally fun for kids. They are now on a great course for developing a fluid stream of mental imagery, appreciating language, and developing simple word patterns. Of course, there are a million and one variations to this theme which you can play with, based on the age range of the class, their particular interests and your own predilections. So remember, have fun and follow the path less taken.

Stay tuned if you like this. Idea Bank 2 will deal with strengthening the imagination!