Born October 21, 1943, in Wellington, New Zealand; daughter of John McLelland (a general secretary) and Florence Marion (a homemaker; maiden name, Thomson) Laird; married David Buchanan McDowall (a writer), April 19, 1975; children: Angus John, William Alistair Somerled. Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: University of Bristol, B.A. (with honors), 1966; University of Edinburgh, M.Litt., 1972. Religion: Church of England. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, travel, reading, patchwork, films.
Agent—Rosemary Sandberg, 6, Bailey St., London, WCIB 3HB England.
Bede Mariam School, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, teacher, 1967-69; Pathway Further Education Centre, Southall, London, England, lecturer, 1972-77. Former violinist with the Iraq Symphony Orchestra; has taught in India and Malaysia.
Burnley Express Book Award, 1988, for Red Sky in the Morning; Glass Globe Award, Royal Dutch Geographical Society, and the Sheffield Book Award, both for Kiss the Dust; Smarties Young Judges Award for Hiding Out; Carnegie Medal Shortlist, British Library Association, 1996, for Secret Friends; Lancashire Book Award, 1997, for Jay; Jake's Tower was short-listed for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, 2002; Scottish Arts Council Children's Book of the Year Award and the Stockport Children's Book Award, both 2004, both for The Garbage King.
Society of Authors, Anglo-Ethiopian Society.
English in Education, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1977.
Faces of Britain, Longman (New York, NY), 1986.
Faces of the U.S.A., photographs by Darryl Williams, Longman (New York, NY), 1987.
Loving Ben, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1989, published as Red Sky in the Morning, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.
Arcadia (historical novel), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.
Jake's Tower, Macmillan (New York, NY), 2001.
The Garbage King, Macmillan (New York, NY), 2003.
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.
(With Abba Aregawi Wolde Gabriel) The Miracle Child: A Story from Ethiopia, Holt (New York, NY), 1985.
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.
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 Corp. (London, England), 1986.
The Road to Bethlehem: A Nativity Story from Ethiopia, foreword by Terry Waite, Holt (New York, NY), 1987.
Work and Play, Children's Press Choice (Chicago, IL), 1987.
Prayers for Children, illustrated by Margaret Tempest, Collins (London, England), 1987.
Time for Fun, Children's Press Choice (Chicago, IL), 1987.
Things to Do, Children's Press Choice (Chicago, IL), 1987.
Busy Day, Children's Press Choice (Chicago, IL), 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.
(With Olivia Madden) The Inside Outing, Barron's (New York, NY), 1988.
Happy Birthday! A Book of Birthday Celebrations, illustrated by Satomi Itchekawa, Collins (London, England), 1987, Philomel (New York, NY), 1988.
Hymns for Children, illustrated by Margaret Tempest, Collins (London, England), 1988.
Sid and Sadie, Collins (London, England), 1988.
(With Olivia Madden) The Inside Outing, Barron's Educational Services (Woodbury, NY), 1988.
Crackers, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1989.
Rosy's Garden, illustrated by Satomi Itchekawa, Putnam (London, England), 1990.
The Day the Ducks Went Skating, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1990.
The Day Veronica Was Nosy, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1990.
The Day Sydney Ran Off, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1990.
The Day Patch Stood Guard, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1990.
The Pink Ghost of Lamont, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1991.
Kiss the Dust, Dutton, 1992, Puffin (New York, NY), 1994.
Hiding Out, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1993.
Secret Friends, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1996.
Jay, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1997.
Forbidden Ground, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1997.
On the Run, Mammoth (Rochester, NY), 1997.
Gabriel's Feather, illustrated by Bettina Patterson, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
A Book of Promises, DK Publishing (New York, NY), 2000.
When the World Began, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2000.
A Little Piece of Ground, Macmillan (New York, NY), 2003.
The Ice Cream Swipe, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Beautiful Bananas, Peachtree (Atlanta, GA), 2004.
Hot Rock Mountain (short stories), Egmont Books (London, England), 2004.
Paradise End, Macmillan (London, England), 2004.
Author of ten volumes in the "Wild Things" series, published by Macmillan (New York, NY), 1999-2000, including Leopard's Trail, Baboon Rock, Elephant Thunder, Rhino Fire, Red Wolf, Zebra Storm, Parrot Rescue, Turtle Reef, Chimp Escape, and Lion Pride. Also writer for television, including The Toucan 'Tecs and Testament.
Elizabeth Laird is a well-respected and award-winning author of children's picture books and easy readers, but she is best known for her novels for young adults. She 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. Born in New Zealand, she moved with her parents to England as a child. At the age of eighteen she took a job teaching in Malaysia, where she suffered a nearly fatal snake bite. After returning to school for a while, she took another teaching job, this time in Ethiopia, where she traveled to remote regions by horseback and bus. It was at this point that her writing began in earnest in the form of diaries and letters.
"I always had a burning desire to travel," Laird once explained, "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."
Two years after returning from Ethiopia, Laird got on a plane for India, heading for a summer teaching job. She became very airsick on the flight, and the man in the seat next to her was kindly and helpful. A year later, she married that passenger, a man named David McDowall, who worked for the British Council. They began their married life in Baghdad, where Laird played violin with the Iraq Symphony Orchestra. The couple then moved on to Beirut, but were eventually evacuated from that war-torn area and sent to Vienna. Once they became the parents of two sons, they moved back to London to raise their family. Laird had already published some historical nonfiction books and reading text for non-English speakers; once in London, she began writing fiction.
Laird's first novel for young adults was inspired by the birth and death of a younger brother. Loving Ben (published in England as Red Sky in the Morning) tells the story of Anna, the twelve-year-old narrator, 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 concluded that the story, told in Anna's "wise and witty voice tugs at the heart."
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Laird's training in linguistics has been greatly helpful to her as she has sought out native tales in various countries. She won praise for her two books recounting Ethiopian religious tales. In The Miracle Child: A Story from Ethiopia she tells the story of Takla Haymanot, a thirteenth-century Ethiopian saint known for praying on one leg after the other withered away, and for performing such miracles as healing the sick and raising the dead. Laird's captions, which accompany the book's reproductions of eighteenth-century paintings by Ethiopian monks, are "informative and explain many of the artistic conventions of Ethiopian paintings in a manner so simple as to be understandable to a child and yet interesting to an adult," according to Vincent Crapanzano of the New York Times Book Review. In The Road to Bethlehem: A Nativity Story from Ethiopia, Laird offers a retelling of Ethiopian accounts of Jesus Christ's birth and the life of the Holy Family. Rosemary L. Bray, an editor of the New York Times Book Review, called the book "delightful" for children because of Laird's "graceful" storytelling and insightful captions. In When the World Began, Laird recorded stories she collected on her travels in remote regions of Ethiopia, and in The Garbage King, she portrayed street children living in the modern-day Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa. "Both their tragedies and triumphs are painted in vivid, authentic, and often horrific detail," according to Genevieve Gallagher in School Library Journal.
A Modern War Story
Kiss the Dust was inspired by Laird's visit to Kurdistan, made when she lived in Iraq. The Kurds were subject to persecution at that time, and many fled their country. The story is told from the point of view of Tara Khan, a thirteen-year-old girl who has grown up in middle-class comfort similar to that of an American child. She is shaken when her father becomes involved in the Kurdish struggle, and is soon caught up in it herself, as her family must flee first to the Kurdish strongholds in the mountains, then to a refugee camp in Iran, and finally to London, where they seek political asylum. "The story is captivating and will shed some light on a tragic situation about which most Americans have little knowledge," wrote a reviewer for Faces: People, Places, and Cultures. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented, "Even those familiar with political problems in Iraq and Iran may be shocked by the graphic depiction of tyranny."
In an interview with Joseph Pike for Jubilee Books, Laird discussed Kiss the Dust, recalling, "I wanted to write a war story, a modern war story, as I thought that there's so many stories about the Second
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World War, which happened 50 years ago, and we don't seem to have moved on to wars that are happening all over the world now." She added: "It took me a year to research that book and I felt enormously worried that Kurdish people would object. I wondered if they'd be patronised by it, or worried about a foreigner writing about them. I spoke to Kurdish people practically every day and I really inched my way ahead in that book."
Jake's Tower, Laird's 2002 novel set in England, 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, 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. Jake and his grandmother forge a strong bond, however, and Jake learns to deal with some uncomfortable truths about his father. Jennifer Ralston, reviewing the story 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 published in 2003, The Garbage King, Laird focuses on the street children of Ethiopia. Dani, a wealthy, spoiled boy who runs away from home, and Mano, 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."
Laird created some controversy with her 2003 title A Little Piece of Ground, the story of Karim, a Palestinian boy who lives under the harsh restrictions of Israeli occupation. While playing football with his friends, the boys become trapped outside during curfew, a dangerous situation when Israeli tanks move in to seal off the area. When Karim's father is stripped and humiliated by soliders, Karim and his friends join in a protest against Israeli occupation. According to Imman Laksari-Adams in the Guardian, Laird "manages to give the story through one person's point of view so that every emotion is shown." The book drew fire from Jewish organizations for its sympathetic portrait of the Palestinian cause. Speaking to the Guardian, Laird explained: "This is an important story that should be told. It shows a child under military occupation. It's terrible for the occupiers, and terrible for the occupied. I hope I have shown how awful it is for the soldiers too."
If you enjoy the works of Elizabeth Laird
If you enjoy the works of Elizabeth Laird, you may also want to check out the following books:
Sonia Levitin, The Return, 1987.
Chris Lynch, Gypsy Davey, 1994.
Frances Temple, Tonight, By Sea, 1995.
Discussing the life of a writer, Laird once stated: "The older I become, the more I realize that being a writer is not a voluntary condition. I didn't decide to become a writer, I discovered that I was one. This slow revelation, after years of teaching in Britain and abroad, has brought me much joy and many anxieties. The joy comes not only from the satisfactions of the creative process, but also from the freedom that being a writer brings, the ability to choose one's own subjects, to travel in search of inspiration, to meet fellow authors, and receive the responses of readers. The anxieties rise from the insecurity of the writer's life, the erratic income, the uncertain response of reviewers, the fear that inspiration, when the current project is finished, might never come back again."
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, 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, George Hunt, review of Forbidden Ground, pp. 19-20; September, 1998, p. 22.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1988, review of The Road to Bethlehem; October, 1989, p. 36.
Faces: People, Places, and Cultures, March, 1999, review of Kiss the Dust, p. 43.
Guardian (London, England), June 14, 2003, Diane Samuels, review of The Garbage King, p. 33, August 23, 2003, Fiachra Gibbons, "Children's Author Faces Jewish Wrath," p. 3; June 12, 2004, Nicola Morgan, review of Paradise End, p. 33; January 18, 2005, Lindsey Fraser, review of Hot Rock Mountain, p. 11.
Horn Book, July, 1989, review of Loving Ben, p. 77.
Independent (London, England), July 29, 2000, Susan Elkin, review of When the World Began, p. 11.
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, review of The Miracle Child: A Story from Ethiopia; December 6, 1987, Rosemary L. Bray, review of The Road to Bethlehem: A Nativity Story from Ethiopia.
Publishers Weekly, January 11, 1991, review of The Day Patch Stood Guard and The Day Sidney Ran off, p. 100; April 27, 1992, review of Kiss the Dust, p. 269; January 4, 1999, review of Secret Friends, p. 91; April 10, 2000, review of A Book of Promises, p. 98; November 10, 2003, review of The Garbage King, p. 63; March 15, 2004, review of Beautiful Bananas, p. 74.
Race and Class, 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; November, 2000, Ann Welton, review of When the World Began, p. 172; October, 2002, Jennifer Ralston, 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.
Times Literary Supplement, November 29, 1985.
Jubilee Books, http://www.jubileebooks.co.uk/ (June, 2002), Joseph Pike, interview with Elizabeth Laird.
Staffordshire Learning Net, http://www.sln.org.uk/english/ (February 1, 2005), Elizabeth Laird, "Hidden Riches from the Horn of Africa."