My absolute favourite book when I was around 10 years old was called Masha, by Mara Kay and it told the story of a girl sent to the Smolni Institute in St Petersburg, a boarding school for girls which you stayed at for nine years, hardly seeing your family. I must have read it hundreds of times, and I have never stopped loving it, but just how much it influenced me became very clear when I received an invitation to visit a school in Moscow.
I was a little dubious about accepting the invitation, because the school mostly has primary aged pupils, and my books are for teenagers, but I couldn't turn down the chance to visit Russia, having been so interested in it for so long. I wasn't sure if it would come off, as the visa process was quite complicated. So it was with a sense of amazement that I boarded the Aeroflot flight two weeks ago, setting off for three days in the Russian capital.
The minute I saw the silver birch trees that fringe the city I was back in the pages of my favourite book, remembering Masha's confidante, the silver birch tree in the gardens of Smolni. My plan for the primary children was to make peg dolls - I took a huge bag of art equipment with me, as it's hard to get hold of in Russia. The younger children, boys and girls, all loved making the dolls and writing stories about them - and as they anxiously asked me if they could take them home, I was reminded of Masha's beloved doll, Anya, made from wood and dessed in a scrap of fabric. When the teacher urged the children to speak English and not Russian, I remembered Masha's teachers telling the girls off for 'chattering in Russian like kitchenmaids.'
The littlest children enjoyed The Tiger Who Came to Tea and a novelty book with a built-in puppet. With the secondary pupils I talked about my books and all aspects of writing - plot planning, creating characters, the editing process. The next day I met with a smaller group to critique their work. Thinking about how much I'd loved reading about Masha's story, and how it had triggered an interest in Russia and Russian history that has lasted all my life, I urged them to think about writing about life in Russia now -
what is it like being a teenager in Moscow?
Their lives are all harder since economic sanctions hit Russia, and one of the casualties are the bookshelves of English language schools, because it is so expensive to buy books. I visited another school on my last morning in Moscow, and donated my picture books on the spot because they only had about 20 books for the whole school. In the interests of international understanding I'm now collecting second hand books to send to these two schools.
My last afternoon was spent sight-seeing, although sadly Red Square was closed, in preparation for the annual Victory Day parade which takes place tomorrow. All too soon I was home, and my trip to Russia felt like a far-off dream.