Elizabeth (Mary Risk) Laird (1943-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1943, in Wellington, New Zealand; Education: University of Bristol, B.A. (with honors), 1966; London University, Certificate of Education, 1967; Edinburgh University, M.Litt., 1971. Religion: Church of England (Anglican). Hobbies and other interests: Chamber music, gardening.
Office—c/o Author Mail, Macmillan Reference USA, 300 Park Ave. S., New York, NY 10010.
Writer, 1980—. Bede Mariam School, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, teacher, 1967-69; Pathway Further Education Centre, Southall, London, England, lecturer, 1972-77.
Society of Authors and Illustrators, Anglo-Ethiopian Society.
Carnegie Medal Award runner-up, British Library Association, 1988, for Red Sky in the Morning; Children's Book Award, Federation of Children's Book Groups, and Sheffield Children's Book Award, both 1992, and Glazen Globe prize, Royal Dutch Geographical Society, 1993, all for Kiss the Dust; Smarties Young Judges Award, 1994, for Hiding Out; Carnegie Medal shortlist, 1996, for Secret Friends; Lancashire Book Award, 1997, for Jay; Carnegie Medal shortlist, and Guardian Children's Fiction Prize shortlist, both 2002, both for Jake's Tower; Hampshire Book Award, 2004, for A Little Piece of Ground; Scottish Arts Council Children's Book of the Year Award, Carnegie Medal shortlist, and BBC Blue Peter shortlist, all 2004, and Stockport Schools Book Award, 2005, all for The Garbage King.
Anna and the Fighter, illustrated by Gay Galsworthy, Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1977.
The House on the Hill, illustrated by Gay Galsworthy, Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1978.
The Garden, illustrated by Peter Dennis, Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1979.
The Big Green Star, illustrated by Leslie Smith, Collins (London, England), 1982.
The Blanket House, illustrated by Leslie Smith, Collins (London, England), 1982.
The Doctor's Bag, illustrated by Leslie Smith, Collins (London, England), 1982.
Jumper, illustrated by Leslie Smith, Collins (London, England), 1982.
(With Abba Aregawi Wolde Gabriel) The Miracle Child: A Story from Ethiopia, Holt (New York, NY), 1985.
The Dark Forest, illustrated by John Richardson, Collins (London, England), 1986.
The Long House in Danger, illustrated by John Richardson, Collins (London, England), 1986.
Henry and the Birthday Surprise, illustrated by Mike Hibbert, photographs by Robert Hill, British Broadcasting Corporation (London, England), 1986.
The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity, foreword by Terry Waite, Holt (New York, NY), 1987.
Prayers for Children, illustrated by Margaret Tempest, Collins (London, England), 1987.
Wet and Dry, Pan Books (London, England), 1987.
Hot and Cold, Pan Books (London, England), 1987.
Light and Dark, Pan Books (London, England), 1987.
Heavy and Light, Pan Books (London, England), 1987.
Busy Day, illustrated by Carolyn Scrace, Children's Press Choice, 1987.
Happy Birthday! A Book of Birthday Celebrations, illustrated by Satomi Ichikawa, Collins (London, England), 1987.
Hymns for Children, illustrated by Margaret Tempest, Collins (London, England), 1988.
Sid and Sadie, illustrated by Alan Marks, Collins (London, England), 1988.
(With Olivia Madden) The Inside Outing, illustrated by Deborah Ward, Barron's Educational Services (Woodbury, NY), 1988.
Red Sky in the Morning, Heinemann (London, England), 1988, published as Loving Ben, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1989.
Graces for Children, Collins (London, England), 1989.
Crackers, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.
Fireman Sam and the Missing Key, Heinemann (London, England), 1990.
Rosy's Garden: A Child's Keepsake of Flowers, illustrated by Satomi Ichikawa, Philomel (New York, NY), 1990.
Kiss the Dust, Dutton (New York, NY), 1991.
The Pink Ghost of Lamont, Heinemann (London, England), 1991.
Pandemonium, Little Mammoth (London, England), 1992.
Dolly Rockers, Little Mammoth (London, England), 1992.
Hiding Out, Heinemann (London, England), 1993.
(With Susan Hellard) Stinker Muggles and the Dazzle Bug, Collins (London, England), 1995.
Secret Friends, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1996, Putnam (New York, NY), 1999.
Jay, Heinemann (London, England), 1997.
Forbidden Ground, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1997.
Rosy's Winter: A Child's Fireside Book, illustrated by Satomi Ichikawa, Heinemann (London, England), 1997.
The Listener, illustrated by Pauline Hazelwood, A. & C. Black (London, England), 1997.
A Funny Sort of Dog, illustrated by Russell Ayto, Heinemann (London, England), 1997.
On the Run, illustrated by Carrie Herries, Mammoth (London, England), 1997.
(Editor) Me and My Electric, illustrated by Polly Dunbar, Mammoth (London, England), 1998.
Gabriel's Feather: The Story of the Nativity, illustrated by Bettina Patterson, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
King of the Supermarket, illustrated by Ailie Busby, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1999.
A Book of Promises, illustrated by Michael K. Frith, Dorling Kindersley (New York, NY), 2000.
When the World Began: Stories Collected in Ethiopia, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Jake's Tower, Macmillan (New York, NY), 2002.
The Garbage King, Macmillan (New York, NY), 2003.
A Little Piece of Ground, Macmillan (London, England), 2003.
Beautiful Bananas, Peachtree (Atlanta, GA), 2004.
Paradise End, Macmillan (London, England), 2004.
Secrets of the Fearless, Macmillan (London, England), 2005.
Also author of school readers, including Anita's Big Day, Australia, Dead Man's River, The Storm, Simon the Spy, Karen and the Artist, Americans on the Move, The Earthquake, Clara, Ask Me Again, Sugar and Candy, Americans at Home, Faces of the U.S.A., and Faces of Britain for Longman and Penguin.
"CUBBY BEARS" SERIES
The Cubby Bears' Birthday Party, illustrated by Carolyn Scrace, Collins (London, England), 1985.
The Cubby Bears Go Camping, illustrated by Carolyn Scrace, Collins (London, England), 1985.
The Cubby Bears Go on the River, illustrated by Carolyn Scrace, Collins (London, England), 1985.
The Cubby Bears Go Shopping, illustrated by Carolyn Scrace, Collins (London, England), 1985.
"LITTLE RED TRACTOR" SERIES
The Day The Ducks Went Skating, illustrated by Colin Reeder, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1991.
The Day Veronica Was Nosy, illustrated by Colin Reeder, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1991.
The Day Sidney Ran Off, illustrated by Colin Reeder, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1991.
The Day Patch Stood Guard, illustrated by Colin Reeder, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1991.
"TOUCAN 'TECS" SERIES
The Grand Ostrich Ball, illustrated by Peter Lawson, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.
Arctic Blues, illustrated by Peter Lawson, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.
Gopher Gold, illustrated by Peter Lawson, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.
High Flyers, illustrated by Peter Lawson, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.
Going Cuckoo, illustrated by Peter Lawson, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.
Fine Feathered Friends, illustrated by Peter Lawson, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.
Kookaburra Cackles, illustrated by Peter Lawson, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.
Peacock Palace Scoop, illustrated by Peter Lawson, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.
Highland Fling, Buzz Books, 1991.
The Big Drip, Buzz Books, 1991.
Desert Island Ducks, Buzz Books, 1991.
The Snail's Tale, Buzz Books, 1991.
"WILD THINGS" SERIES
Leopard Trail, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1999.
Baboon Rock, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1999.
Elephant Thunder, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1999.
Rhino Fire, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1999.
Red Wolf, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1999.
Zebra Storm, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1999.
Turtle Reef, Macmillan (New York, NY), 2000.
Parrot Rescue, Macmillan (New York, NY), 2000.
Chimp Escape, Macmillan (New York, NY), 2000.
Lion Pride, Macmillan (New York, NY), 2000.
English in Education, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1977.
Arcadia, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.
Elizabeth Laird, a well-respected and award-winning author of children's picture books and easy readers, is best known for her novels for young adults. Her most widely read book, Loving Ben—published in England as Red Sky in the Morning—tells about a young girl caring for her hydrocephalic baby brother. The novel was a critical success upon publication in 1989, and has continued to be a favorite in classrooms around the world. A prolific writer, Laird has paired a love of travel with a love for books in a long list of novels about Muslim countries, the Middle East, and East Africa. Her Kiss the Dust deals with the realties of a Kurdish rebellion in Iraq; Forbidden Ground is set in a nameless North African country and deals with a young girl coming to grips with moral issues; the "Wild Things" series is set in Kenya and Ethiopia and feature a core cast of characters who deal with wildlife issues in each volume.
Born in New Zealand to Scottish parents, Laird now makes her home in England. She has been inspired by her experiences as a traveler and teacher, and was particularly motivated to adapt Ethiopian Christian folklore for a European audience after spending two years in Ethiopia. "I always had a burning desire to travel," Laird once told Something about the Author (SATA), "and as soon as I possibly could, at the age of eighteen, I took off from home (with my parents' blessing!) and went to Malaysia where I spent a year as a teacher's aide in a boarding school for Malay girls. That experience only gave me a taste for more, so after I had graduated in French (which involved a wonderful spell as a student in Paris) I headed off to Ethiopia, and worked for two years in a school in Addis Ababa. In those days the country was at peace, and it was possible to travel to the remotest parts by bus and on horseback."
That experience provided the background for a series of easy readers for teaching purposes, as well as for The Miracle Child: A Story from Ethiopia, which was written in collaboration with Abba Aregawi Wolde Gabriel. The book recounts the life of Takla Haymanot, a thirteenth-century Ethiopian saint revered for the miracles of healing the sick and raising the dead. The text is accompanied by reproductions of eighteenth-century paintings by Ethiopian monks. Vincent Crapanzano, contributor to the New York Times Book Review, asserted that the reproductions are "informative and explain many of the artistic conventions of Ethiopian painting in a manner so simple as to be understandable to a child, yet interesting to an adult."
Laird's second adaptation of Ethiopian religious folklore follows the same format. The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity is an Ethiopian account of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. The tale presents a more earthly account of the nativity than the standard Christian version and credits Mary with an active role as a healer and saint. "Mary is no ordinary woman in these stories, and not just because she is the mother of Jesus," observed Rosemary L. Bray in the New York Times Book Review. "As the Holy Family flees Herod into Egypt, Mary embarks on a ministry of healing: 'The dumb spoke, the lame ran, the deaf heard, and the blind could see.'" A reviewer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books concluded that The Road to Bethlehem combines familiar themes of the New Testament "with popular legends and miracles into a cohesive narrative."
Laird's first novel for young adults was inspired by the birth and death of a younger brother. Loving Ben tells the story of twelve-year-old narrator Anna, whose brother, Ben, is born brain damaged. Through Anna, Laird recreates the family struggle of raising a handicapped child and the confusing feelings of pain and release experienced when the child dies. "Anna's voice rings true throughout as she moves from awkwardness and judgmental statements to a more mature empathy," wrote Barbara Chatton in a School Library Journal review. Critics also praised the author's rendering of the adult characters outside Anna's family. The adults who help Anna understand new aspects of human nature "are sufficiently real, and the story homely and natural enough for the wisdom of the moral lessons conveyed to be palatable," wrote a Junior Bookshelf reviewer. A critic in Horn Book Guide concluded that the story, told in Anna's "wise and witty voice tugs at the heart."
Laird's interest in foreign places has also inspired Kiss the Dust. Set in Iraq, the novel tells the story of Tara Khan, a twelve-year-old Kurdish girl whose family is forced to relocate when the Iraqi government attempts to suppress the Kurds. Tara's family escapes first to Iran, where she is forced to adopt a highly conservative Muslim lifestyle, and finally to England, where she must confront the shock of an entirely new, secular culture. Critics have commented on the graphic depiction of violence in the story, and although some found the detail unnecessary, others deemed it appropriate to, and accurate for, the wartime situations in which Tara is embroiled and fleeing. "Kiss the Dust is filled with wonderfully researched ethnographic details about both Kurdish and refugee culture, and opens a door to a foreign world," wrote Elizabeth Cohen, a New York Times Book Review contributor. This is particularly the case, observed Cohen, when Tara makes comparisons between her journey's beginning in urban Sulaimaniya and its end in a working-class neighborhood in London. A critic for Kirkus Reviews felt that Laird "builds a sympathetic portrait of the embattled Kurds and a compelling portrait of Tara," and concluded that the book was an "important contribution to the growing number of refugee stories."
Laird has also written for younger children. Rosy's Garden: A Child's Keepsake of Flowers is a collection of flower lore and legend dispensed within the framework of Rosy's visits to her garden-loving grandmother's house. In addition to the story-telling, Rosy's grandmother teaches her to make such garden trifles as rose water, potpourri, and herb sandwiches. Rosy's Garden is an "unusual treasury of flower lore" according to Carolyn Phelan in Booklist. Laird has also written the text for several picture books, including the "Cubby Bears" and "Little Red Tractor" series. In the latter, a tractor and its driver, Stan, come to the rescue of farmers and livestock in need of assistance. While Duncan, the tractor, is never given human thoughts or actions, it still becomes something of a character in the gentle stories. According to School Library Journal contributor Nancy Seiner "child appeal is assured by the winning personalities of the animals and the major role played by the tractor." Writing in Magpies, Lyn Linning commented that both series "are appealing pictures books for preschoolers." Linning went on to comment about Laird's writing for very young readers in general, claiming that the author "knows how to entertain middle primary readers while extending their facility with books and language."
Though Laird does write the occasional picture book as well as books for middle primary readers, she has concentrated mostly on juvenile novels with her later work. Secret Friends does not borrow an exotic locale, though it does look at a newly immigrated family in England. Rafaella feels an outsider at school, except for the one girl, Lucy, who befriends her. But Lucy does not want to risk being a social outcast herself and has even given her secret friend the pejorative nickname "Earwig" because of Rafaella's large ears. Taunted and teased on the playground for this physical anomaly, Rafaella finally undergoes corrective surgery, but dies of heart failure during the operation. Lucy is haunted with guilt as a result. "The power of the story," noted Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman, "is the honesty of Lucy's first-person narrative, her uneasiness as a bystander to the bullying, torn between shame and pity." Rochman added that what gives "unexpected depth to the outsider theme" is Lucy's envy of Rafaella's happy home life, a stark contrast to her own.
With Forbidden Ground Laird moves back to more exotic locales, penning a novel about a love that challenges conventions and is set in an unnamed North African country. Hannah has just moved to the city from the more traditional rural culture and finds it difficult adjusting to the cosmopolitan moral values she encounters there. These internal conflicts increase when she meets Sami, who may or may not be sincere in his professed love for her. George Hunt noted in Books for Keeps that the novel "is a romantic, but realistic and unsentimental story; its cultural and geographic settings are vividly evoked, but the universality of the emotional dilemmas it describes gives the story a very wide relevance and appeal." Sarah Mears concluded in School Librarian that Laird's book presents a "readable story which provides a view of life in a modern Islamic community."
Another unnamed foreign country is the backdrop for On the Run, a "feel-good" novel about a resourceful but lonely child, according to Chris Stephenson in School Librarian. Hania is left behind with her grandfather when her parents flee the country to avoid being conscripted to the nationalist cause in a civil war. Hania finds consolation feeding the chickens until a wounded freedom fighter comes her way and she nurses him back to health in the barn, her activities hidden from the gruff grandfather. Finally she discovers that her grandfather too supports the freedom movement and has actually been looking for the wounded soldier all along. Stephenson concluded that the novel is "somewhat farfetched, but ultimately a heart-warming moral tale."
A popular project for Laird has been the "Wild Things" series books, with their cast of three main recurring characters: an English boy, a Kenyan boy, and an Ethiopian-American girl. Set in East Africa, the short novels all deal with trouble the three encounter each time they find a different wild species at risk. In the first of the series, Leopard Trail, Tom, Joseph, and Afra discover the difficulty of re-locating wild leopards. In Baboon Rock Afra is confronted with the knowledge that adopting an injured baby baboon might not be the smartest thing to do. Tom intercedes between humans and pachyderms in Elephant Thunder, while Joseph confronts a band of illegal hunters in Rhino Fire. Deadly rabies is at the heart of Red Wolf, and a drought parches the plains in Zebra Storm. All the while, the trio of characters must also deal with the usual childhood dilemmas of growing up.
Laird retells twenty stories of African origin in When the World Began: Stories Collected in Ethiopia, published in 2000. The idea for the book came during the author's travels to Ethopia, where she came in contact with traditional storytellers. As she told interviewer Joseph Pike on the Jubilee Books Web site: "The storytellers would tell the stories absolutely straight, very much like the style of the bible. In the African oral tradition there's a wonderful spareness: they don't bother with adjectives, they don't dress it up, they tell the bare bones of the story and do a lot of colour with the voice." In When the World Began, Laird continued, "I tried to reproduce the simplicity of the original narrators. Very often you have to listen to the story several times … unpack them and really be able to make the narrative work." According to reviewers, many of the tales in When the World Began are reminiscent of Aesop's fables or stories by the Brothers Grimm. According to School Library Journal contributor Ann Welton, the "tales, myths, and extended jokes paint a picture of a vibrant culture, open to the world around it." "The straightforward prose and the brevity of the tales make them good for reading aloud or story times," noted Shelle Rosenfeld in Booklist.
Laird's novel Jake's Tower, set in England, was shortlisted for both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Prize for fiction. The work concerns a young boy, Jake, who lives in fear of his mother's abusive boyfriend. To escape his misery, Jake often dreams of a secret hideaway, and he also creates a fantasy involving Danny, his biological father, who, as a teenager, abandoned Jake's mother, Marie. After a particularly violent beating from the boyfriend, Jake and Marie realize they need help, and they move in with Danny's mother, who has always denied that her son is Jake's father. As Jake and his grandmother forge a strong bond, the boy also learns to deal with some uncomfortable truths about his father. Jennifer Ralston, reviewing Jake's Tower in School Library Journal, praised Laird for creating "believable characters" and noted that "the book conveys the tension and terror of living with abuse."
In her young adult novel The Garbage King Laird focuses on the street children of Ethiopia. Dani, a wealthy, spoiled boy who runs away from home, and Mamo, an orphan who escapes after being sold into slavery, meet in a cemetery in Addis Ababa. The pair soon join a gang of homeless children led by Million, a young tough who teaches them the ways of the street, including how to beg for money and scavenge food from the garbage. According to School Library Journal reviewer Genevieve Gallagher, "the boys become a family and both their tragedies and triumphs are painted in vivid, authentic, and often horrific detail." Though some critics faulted the book's upbeat ending, most found the tale compelling and praised the authenticity of the characters. In the words of Booklist critic Hazel Rochman, "It's the elemental friendship story of fear and hope that will draw in readers."
The 2004 folktale Beautiful Bananas follows the adventures of Beatrice, a little girl who travels through the African jungle to present a bunch of bananas to her grandfather. Along the way, she loses the fruit after a giraffe accidentally bumps into her; the giraffe replaces the bananas with a gift of flowers that are soon damaged by a group of bees, who replace the flowers with a gift of honey. As her journey continues, Beatrice is involved in a number of mishaps with a host of other animals, but by the time she arrives at her grandfather's home, the bananas are safely back in her arms. Reviewing Beautiful Bananas in Booklist, John Peters complimented the story's "direct action and elegantly circular structure."
Commenting on her varied work to SATA, Laird once wrote: "I feel immensely privileged to be able to earn my living as a writer. I cherish the freedom. I enjoy working on my own thing in my own time. I also love the unexpectedness. I never know where the inspiration will strike next, or into what exciting byways it will lead me."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, March 15, 1990, Carolyn Phelan, review of Rosy's Garden, p. 1446; June 1, 1991, p. 1879; January 15, 1995, p. 946; January 1, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of Secret Friends, p. 878; February 15, 2001, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of When the World Began: Stories Collected in Ethiopia, p. 1148; December 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of The Garbage King, p. 667; May 1, 2004, John Peters, review of Beautiful Bananas, p. 1563.
Books for Keeps, January, 1998, Hunt, George, review of Forbidden Ground, pp. 19-20; September, 1998, p. 22.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, review of The Road to Bethlehem, 1988; October, 1989, p. 36.
Guardian, February 3, 1998, Joanna Carey, "Out of Africa," p. 5.
Horn Book, July, 1989, review of Loving Ben, p. 77.
Junior Bookshelf, August, 1988, review of Red Sky in the Morning, p. 197.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1989, p. 1476; March 1, 1990, p. 349; April 15, 1992, review of Kiss the Dust, p. 539; February 1, 2004, review of Beautiful Bananas, p. 135.
Magpies, July, 1999, Lyn Linning, "Know the Author: Elizabeth Laird," pp. 14-15.
New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1985, Vincent Crapanzano, "Takla the Wonderworker," p. 38; December 6, 1987, Rosemary L. Bray, review of The Road to Bethlehem, p. 80; October 4, 1992, Elizabeth Cohen, review of Kiss the Dust, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, October 27, 1989, p. 70; April 27, 1992, p. 269; November 10, 2003, review of The Garbage King, p. 63; March 15, 2004, review of Beautiful Bananas, p. 74.
Race and Class, July-September, 2004, Imman Laksari-Adams, review of A Little Piece of Ground, p. 139.
School Librarian, spring, 1997, Chris Stephenson, review of On the Run, p. 34; November, 1997, Sarah Mears, review of Forbidden Ground, p. 21.
School Library Journal, September, 1989, Barbara Chatton, review of Loving Ben, p. 252; July, 1990, p. 61; September, 1991, Nancy Seiner, review of The Day Patch Stood Guard and The Day Sidney Ran Off, p. 236; July, 1992, p. 90; March, 1999, p. 210; November, 2000, Ann Welton, review of When the World Began: Stories Collected in Ethiopia, p. 172; October, 2002, Jennifer Raiston, review of Jake's Tower, p. 168; December, 2003, Genevieve Gallagher, review of The Garbage King, p. 156; April, 2004, Margaret R. Tassia, review of Beautiful Bananas, p. 118.
Achuka Children's Books Web site, http://www.achuka.co.uk/ (April 5, 2005), Julia Eccleshare, interview with Laird.
Jubilee Books Web site, http://www.jubileebooks.co.uk/ (June, 2002), Joseph Pike, interview with Laird.