About me – A Collection of Connections
This wondrous thing just happened! I HAD to add in the delightful Chris Riddell drawing from the 2020 CLIPPA AWARDS.
For those of you who are curious about who exactly I am and how I came to write poetry books and stories, the following extracts from some early teaching journals, info on my theatre and dance career, my unexpected publishing life and my continuing writing obsession might be interesting.
MY TEACHING STORY
I began my work at the New City School, an alternative school, along the lines of Summerhill in the UK, which was established in 1969 in St Louis, Missouri. I was lucky enough to get a job at New City right after University and I began to develop and explore movement, drama and writing activities with children from 5 to 12 years old.
The following summer I was hired by the Special School District in St Louis to teach “Creatives” in a six-week summer school program for physically challenged children. I also got work teaching dance and drama at Central Institute for the Deaf. These were tough assignments but the children responded with enthusiasm and excitement. At the same time I studied modern dance at Washington University where I was fortunate enough to work with extraordinary dancers like Merce Cunningham, Dan Wagoner, Phyllis Lamhut and Meredith Monk. I also studied poetry writing at Wash U and was part of a women’s poetry group led by prize winning poet and great friend, Jane O Wayne .
These early teaching experiences taught me that learning must involve the whole child; his brain, body, emotions and imagination. And my responsibility as a teacher, writer and performer was to encourage the development of that total child both cognitively and creatively. And I also knew that an arts education could be and needed to be at the heart of this growth.
I was then invited to teach in the MAT PROGRAM (Masters of Arts of Teaching) at Webster University and to teach children’s dance at Washington University.
Teaching dance at Washington University
THE NEXT STEP: THEATRE AND DANCE
At the end of an intense period of teaching all kinds of children and adults in a variety of circumstances, and studying modern dance and poetry, my mind was made up. I would follow my dream. I would hit the road and start a travelling theatre dance company for kids with the best actors, dancers and musicians around. We would only use live music. And original scripts. I envisioned a seamless, exciting, innovative kind of show that mixed theater, dance, music, art and energising words. I knew that classroom visits after the shows and teachers workshops must play a vital role in our visits.
I set up Metro Theatre Circus in 1972 with my great and like-minded friend, Lynn Rubright. New City School gave us a big classroom for rehearsal space in exchange for the company teaching creative arts there during the week. We were set.
Our first performance
The above photo with all the ribbons was taken just after our first performance in Autumn 1973. We called our show, “THE SECOND GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.” Included are Lynn (purple), Me (Yellow), Becky (Green), Rita (Pink), John ( Red), and Jamie (Orange). After this very first show we were hired by school districts all over the state and mid-west.
Looking back, I am sure all this optimistic ‘get up and go’ and was linked to the zeitgeist of the late 60’s counter culture where, we were sure, if we were passionate enough we could do anything . . . no matter what.
Early days in the Circus
John Traversa's perfect brochure cover
And it worked. The ‘Circus’ proved to be a formative and thrilling adventure in our lives. Metro’s mission was to bring live innovative theatre, dance, and music experiences to kids of all ages and social and cultural backgrounds across America. And to heighten that experience by going into the classroom to work directly with kids and teachers. We became a success very early on and in 1975 MTC won the prestigious Winifred Ward Prize, sponsored by the American Theater Association, for the best children’s theater company in America. Below are just a few of the many press pieces about the company during our first few years.
The above photos are from a performance of SOMERSAULT which I wrote in 1978 and which included a musical version of the rhyming play, The Three Little Pigs. The full text of that are included in Firecrackers. I played Mama Pig in the pink wig and talented friends Carol North, Branislav Tomich and Suzanne Costello (all in pink ears) were the three fabulous dancing baby pigs. The ingenious banjo, guitar and piano score was composed by Stephen Radek, who so brilliantly composed all of Metro’s pieces while I was there. Performer and artist Branislav Tomich created the set and costume design and June Ekman was co-director.
The MTC gang on tour in Iowa in our Dodge Van, 1978. Pictured left to right are Me, Peter Hessed, Branislav Tomich, Nick Kryah and Carol North. Susanne Costello took the picture.
The above brochures were by the late and great artist and dancer, Remy Charlip. MTC was fortunate enough to have worked with Remy and his wonderful colleague, June Ekman, on two Metro shows; Arm in Arm ( based on his best-selling children’s book ) and Do You Love me Still or Do you Love Me Moving ( from his mail order dance drawings). The photos below are from Remy’s Arm in Arm and Do You Love Me Still or Do You Love Me Moving.
In 1978-79 we performed a play of poems written by me called Mudweavings.
These poems were based on the idea of personal myth; those little stories we each make up as a child which help us make sense of the world. I collected these myths from family and friends. One of my personal myths, for example, was thinking that the sun rose the exact second I opened my eyes in the morning. Everyone I interviewed had a different myth. It seemed to me that the re-telling of these myths, needed to take a poetic form.
Mudweavings emerged as a musical poem/play filled with bubbling mud puddles, dancing paper bags, friendly moons, racing trees, sparkles on a morning sidewalk and freckles on a friend’s nose.
From The St Louis Post Dispatch
Me in Mudweavings at Edison Theater
Below a scene from Square Dance
“Now all join hands and circle round
Meet your partner at the lost and found
Do-see-do and do-see-dee
Let’s stop this dance for a cup of tea”
In fact a number of poems, haiku and little plays that also appear much later in ‘Firecrackers’ were written by me and performed by the company during those first ten years when I was both performing and directing the Circus. The imaginative sets and costumes for Mudweavings were designed by Branislav Tomich. Music was by Steven Radeck.
We gave shows and taught nearly every day during the academic year in different schools and arts venues across America. Below is the program from our first exciting appearance at The John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.
It was a crazy arduous schedule (especially as a young mother with two children), but totally wonderful. Exhilarating. I am sure, looking back, that I personally must have played every animal there ever was as well as a myriad of creatures that never were. Below is a scene from our performance of the poem The Trade from Mudweavings.
You can scroll down to see the poem and art and book which emerged from this theatre/dance piece twenty years later. . .
Then in 1981 I moved to London and Metro was taken over by brilliant fellow company members, Carol North and Nick Kryah, who managed to keep the company alive and thriving for nearly four decades.
I remain crazily proud of Metro because this remarkable company continues to grow, entertain, educate and flourish. It is now beautifully guided by Julia Flood and Joe Gfaller. Metro has, over the years, touched the lives of millions of children around the world. It will soon celebrate 50 years and is the third oldest professional theatre company in St Louis. Hard to imagine.
Looking for acting work headshot
Now in London in the early eighties, I worked in fringe theatre and dance, both performing and producing. Below is a scene from ‘Candy and Shelly Go to the Desert’, by Paula Cizmar which was directed by Terry Johnson and performed at The Old Red Lion in London.
In 1988 I was working with The Liverpool Playhouse when I met the late literary agent, Rod Hall. I shyly handed him a manilla envelope of the poem/plays that I had written for Mudweavings. Rod liked these little pieces and took the poems to the publisher of Orchard Books in London, Judith Elliott. She published it the following year as ‘Mud, Moon and Me.‘ Jo Burroughes (now Jo Riddell) created the wonderful illustrations.
Judith has been a brilliant friend ever since that time and indeed it is her wise hand which has so firmly nurtured and guided Firecrackers, Spot Guevara Hero Dog, and Cherry Moon. Plus the new titles.
I haven’t mentioned that during the years the Circus toured around America, I was collecting antique quilts on the side. I first saw these treasures in small town thrift shops and vintage clothes stores and was smitten by their beauty. I loved touching them and was in awe of the old fabrics. I started buying them and studying the literature about quilts. It felt like I was holding pieces of precious history in my hands.
Antique quilts hadn’t yet been ‘discovered’ as folk art and so it was easy to buy them for only a few dollars each. After some years, without meaning to, I assembled a collection of over one hundred quilts. I wrote the book below under the psudonym of Susan Jenkins.
This stunning cover is a Log Cabin Quilt dating from the 1890s
This book I wrote as me for MQP. The cover is a rare signed Album Quilt dating back to the American Civil War in 1865.
Naturally when I moved to London my quilts came with me. After doing a number of exhibits and writing The American Quilt Story for HarperCollins about the history of American women and quilting traditions, I decided to start my own publishing company in 1992.
It was a leap to be sure. But then I was used to leaps. The company was based in an old warehouse a few blocks from where I lived in London. It was originally called Museum Quilts Publications. At first we published only books about quilting. Then we moved on to other crafts, cooking, life-style, biography, health, spirituality, popular culture, history, gift and more. After a few years we had a team of 35 people in both London and New York and were producing a lot of books on all kinds of subjects. Our name had changed to MQP Books, LTD. Below is an article from The Bookseller from 2005 about our little go-to company.
I was CEO and publisher of MQP for 16 years.
After leaving London in 2007 and following a dream once more, we moved to rural France to an old stone farmhouse. Waking up each morning to the thrill of a bright orange sun rolling over the horizon, I found myself coming back to my roots; writing for kids. I was inspired by what I saw and heard every day in the countryside. The authenticity, wildness and beauty of country life cast its spell. I couldn’t put my pen down.
This lovely watercolour of our house is by Shelley Helfman.
And then the stars smiled. Another leap. I found some brilliant children’s book professionals to work with; Judith Elliott my dear friend, Roy Johnson of Troika Books, Jo Hardacre, and genius illustrators, Jo Riddell, Katy Riddell, Junli Song and Lucy Wynne.
To date Troika has published 3 of my books; Firecrackers, Spot Guevara Hero Dog, and Cherry Moon. Happily, these have had some good reviews and praise. Two more exciting books are planned for Spring 2021 with Troika; When Poems Fall from the Sky (in association with The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) and illustrated by Junli Song, and Polka Dot Poems…100 Weird and Wonderful Nature Haiku, illustrated by Lucy Wynne.
And that is the improbable and unexpected story of how I ‘followed my bliss’ as one used to say in the 70’s and the rest just somehow . . fell into place.
Now. The most exciting and thrilling thing of all, Cherry Moon, has just WON the prestigious ClIPPA award for 2020!
There you have it….A COLLECTION OF CONNECTIONS
I think this opening poem from Cherry Moon sums it up.
My close friend and editor extraordinaire, JUDITH ELLIOTT. It was Judith, when she was publisher of Orchard Books back in the 80’s and later of Orion Children’s Books, who first saw something in my little manuscript of Mud Moon and Me. And years later it was Judith who helped me figure out how to move forward with Firecrackers. And Judith who so carefully made sure that every poem worked. And Judith who skillfully guided me through Cherry Moon. She was and is my wonderful Mrs. Picky. Indeed. It is savvy and wise Judith who reads every manuscript at every stage with both a critical and loving eye .
My muse and inspiration, poet Jane O Wayne.
Roy Johnson and Troika. Who had the faith to take me on as an unknown and let me get on with things the way I wanted to. I cannot thank him and Troika enough for their good will, trust and warmth.
Of course, my books would not have been so visible to the public or taken up by schools and libraries, if it weren’t for the efforts of Jo Hardacre.
I have been honoured to work with such wonderful artists as Jo Riddell, her talented daughter Katy Riddell, Junli Song and newest to our little family, Lucy Wynne. I thank them all for their brilliant art, heartfelt efforts and utter commitment to making beautiful books.
My deepest thanks goes to Lisa Dempsey, great friend from Brooklyn, who has taken the time to help me with, well, anything. And especially who has so beautifully put together my various websites over the years. Including this one!
I must also express my deepest appreciation to all of the extraordinary UK children’s poets and publishers, teachers and educators, and to the amazing CLPE who work so wonderfully and tirelessly to promote, what I know to be, one of the most important things we can give our children; words that guide us to dream big and re-imagine our world.
ps…and thank you to JUNLI SONG for allowing us to use her fabulous image (on the HOME PAGE) from our next book for this site.