Standing in front of an audience of 100 children at Newtown Friends School, Pennsylvania, I began my first presentation in an American school. Small faces, wide eyed, they sat and watched as the first slide came on and connections fell into place. It was as if a magic thread had led me to this time and place.
We arrived in Philadelphia in the evening after a long flight. Lucky enough to have a window seat I marveled at the clouds blossoming in the ocean of air through which we flew. Tiny white seeds stuck to the window, carried across the Atlantic by our metal bird. Far beneath us the sea wrinkled, ice lakes and mountains dusted with snow passed by. As we landed and passed through customs ,having signed a piece of paper to assure the American government that I was not involved in sabotage or espionage or drug running or any other illegal activities, and had not taken part in genocide, everything still seemed very unreal.
As we drove to the school the next morning we headed out of the city and through countryside with winter trees, canada geese close cropping the grass in fields between weatherboard houses where rocking chairs on porches swayed in the wind. Two days before I had walked around Maes y Mynydd, the ruined village near home. I had walked along a narrow pathway, wide as a cart, called the Road to Pennsylvania on old maps. Now I stood here telling the children at the friends school all about the magical connection while the slides showed an emerald patchwork of medieval fields, craggy outcrops and the ruins of what used to be a Quaker village, where people had dreamed of going to America. And I told them of The Seal Children and of their connection to the book, written so far away. Then I read them The Snow Leopard.
A pile of books waited to be signed, then off to lunch and on to another school where the library was so full of colour and life. After this Robin and I ran away with Ellen Mager to her bookshop in DoylesTown, The Booktender's Secret Garden.The walls were covered in author and illustrator's signatures and the shop was piled high with wonderful books. Ellen and I talked of books, one of her favorites being The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznic, wonderful mix of text and pictures, and I signed more books before she drove us back to Philadelphia.
Late at night the buildings shimmered like a million coloured star fallen to earth. Steam rose from metal gratings in the road. Across rooftops stars and stripes fluttered in the breeze. America.
I woke early. There is no silence here but the constant thrum of air conditioning. It rattles like rain on the windows, a steady sound like a distant sea. There is a hum of cars, sirens, the song of the city.
Saturday and Sunday were spent at the American Library Association Winter Conference, held in the Reading station conference centre just across the road from the hotel. We took the long route around a block or two, along a deeply cobbled street where a puddle reflected tall buildings. In a doorway a man stretched and stood, bags around him. Young and fit and sleeping on the streets, he did press ups and stretches against the curb, using the street as a gym and I wondered about his story and why he was there, where he was going. Sometimes we glance past other people's lives.
I signed books and met many people. Moments of time spent with strangers. One woman in particular I would have loved to talked to in a quiet room for hours, her accent was smooth and rich like music. Coleen C Salley, beautiful woman who wore her age so well. I felt that there was so much I could have learnt from her and wonder if we may meet again some time, in New Orleans where she is a professor emerita of children's literature.
Lunch in the food market was a hectic affair full of colour, then back to the conference to sign again. Robin was accosted by a fair pirate woman, Hannah Pritchard the Pirate of the Revolution from Enslow Publishers, touting her wares with tales of the high seas.
In the evening PGW, the distributors for Frances Lincoln books in the USA held a reception in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. We had the run of the galleries and the building alone was so beautiful. One of the windows was of thick leaded glass, a jewel. In one room a wooden statue of a woman stood in a glass case. Arms outstretched, forever awaiting her partner, for the music to begin, I wondered if she danced alone every night in her glass case, when no one was watching. Outside the city lights sparkled in the rain-washed streets.
Early on Sunday morning the night sky is gray. There were rumors of snow, a foot or two of snow. No stars other than the lights of tall buildings. Signing again at the ALA as the New York Times ran a review of the Snow Leopard, and again the session was busy. Jet lag hit and I was sent back to the hotel to rest before the afternoon tea party held in the Mary Cassatt tea room in the Rittenhouse Hotel. Tea and cakes and fruit dipped in chocolate and a short speech and then signing. Afterwards a beautiful man from Africa asked if I was the author and illustrator of the children's books. He talked about his people , where the culture was for storytelling rather than the written word, how a story would grow up with the people, how they would gather to listen together, so different from reading. I talk too much and realize that I should listen more. I was glad that he spoke with me. He said it was a wonderful gift to make books and stories for children, and it is. He said that in his country there is a saying that when an elder dies it is like the closing of a book, like losing a library, as that person's story dies with them. Unless they have told their stories and they are carried on. Words catch memories and hold them to the printed page. I should have asked his name. Meeting him was a great pleasure.
Walking back to the hotel in the dark a steady drizzle fell, the odd flake of snow drifting down in a slow dance among the city lights.
On Monday Ani, our driver and minder, took us out through the city and suburbs where old houses stood by the roadside, some beautiful, some derelict with blind eyes and tumbledown walls, to Rosemont where the children were wide-eyed and wonderful. I read them the text of The Ice Bear, first time of reading it to an audience of children. Then on to the Friends School at Plymouth Meeting, through St Davids and Haverford and Bryn Mawr. The children showed us proudly around their wonderful school, then I showed them the pictures of Maes y Mynydd and wished I had more photographs of Wales for them. They picked up on all kinds of things in the Snow Leopard that had not been noticed before, the fur on the soldiers' helmets, the blind dark eyes of the soldiers. In their school small grave stones stood in the fields where they played. Some dated back to the founding fathers and I wondered if any marked the last resting place of people from the old village here?
A night time drive to Baltimore followed, after signing books in a magical bookshop, The Children's Book World, full of wonderfull books.
On Tuesday and Wednesday two days merged together. Beginning with talks in the library where there was no powerpoint or screen or computer, so I read and drew and took questions, and was given a lovely story about a tomato by a girl called Emma. Between sessions we had lunch in an amazing restaurant with a log fire blazing. And it snowed. Not enough to stick, but a small blizzard called up by the snowleopard so that I could watch magical flakes dancing and swirling.
At The Children's Bookstore I was greeted by Lucy, a bit young to be behind the counter I think but very wise. The window was full of my books and I signed and talked a little and met a friend from St Davids, small world, and a lovely lady who had come to tea at my house some time ago. She drove us to the airport, but not until Joann who owns the shop had given me a lovely little dragon who now lives in the magic egg and who will help with my next book, and we made it just in time to get on the plane to fly home. Before I knew where I was we were in the departure lounge, on the plane and then the sun was rising as we flew over London. Perfect timing, the balance between night and day and the morning star clinging to the lightening sky. Below the Tower Bridge, Houses of Parliament, The London Eye, Battersea Power Station looking like Christmas decorations covered in fairylights. Already America seemed far away and long ago.
So, a big thanks to my publisher, Frances Lincoln, for taking me, to all at PGW, especially Sarah Rosenberg, Susan and Helen, Tracey and Karen, Ellen and Hannah and Joann at the bookstores and all the teachers and librarians for welcoming me into the schools. And a big thank you to all of the children for making it such an enjoyable visit with their enthusiasm for the story and their curiosity and their questions. And an especially big thank you to Ani for driving us around in our big black car and looking after us, getting us to where-ever we needed to be and for putting up with us, and to Janetta for insisting that I should go, and that I would like it.
Oh, yes, and to Robin, who was charming and lovely at all times and who had to put up with my jet lag, my last minute decision in the elevator at the airport where I announced that I would be better off a home, did not like lifts and that flying was unnatural and not something I wished to do and how I wished everyone would just leave me alone and let me get on with painting.