Elizabeth Laird (author)

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Elizabeth Laird (born 1943) is a British writer of children's fiction and travel. She is also known for the large body of folktales which she collected from the regions of Ethiopia. Her books have been translated into at least fifteen languages.[1]


Laird was born in New Zealand in 1943. She was the fourth child of her Scottish father and New Zealand mother. The family settled in Purley, near London in 1945. A fifth child was born in 1947. He suffered severe disabilities and died in 1949. Laird's first children's novel, Red Sky in the Morning (Heinemann, 1988), was inspired in some measure by his life.[1]

At the age of 18, Laird travelled to Malaysia, and worked for a year as a teaching assistant in Kolej Tunku Kurshiah, Seremban. She was fortunate to recover from the bite of a poisonous snake in the South China Sea.

After finishing her degree at Bristol University and qualifying as a teacher from the Institute of Education in London, Laird took up a post at the Prince Bede Mariam Laboratory School, which was attached to the University of Addis Ababa. She spent two years in Ethiopia, travelling widely, often on foot and on horseback, and developed an abiding interest in the country.

After finishing a master's degree in Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, Laird worked for five years in Southall at the Pathway Further Education Centre, setting up language teaching programmes in factories and hospitals for newly arrived immigrants from the Indian subcontinent.

She met her husband David McDowall on an aeroplane in India, while travelling to Bhopal to teach in a summer school for Indian university teachers. They married in 1975.

David McDowall was working at the time with the British Council in Baghdad, where they began their married life, and where Laird joined the Iraq Symphony Orchestra as a violinist. A visit to the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq would later be the inspiration for Laird's second novel, Kiss the Dust (Heinemann, 1990). Their first son, Angus, was born in 1977.

David McDowall left the British Council for a post in Beirut, Lebanon, with UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) in 1977. The civil war intensified during their stay. It was a dangerous time to be living in Beirut, and the Agency was evacuated to Vienna in 1978. The time in Beirut inspired Laird's short novel, Oranges in No Man's Land (Macmillan, 2006), and her Crusade (Macmillan, 2007). Her second son, William, was born in Vienna in 1979.

Laird and McDowall left UNRWA in 1979 and the family settled in Richmond, near London to embark on a career as freelance writers. After a short stint of working on materials for English language teaching, Laird began to write for children. Her work includes fiction for younger readers and young adults, picture books, and retellings of world stories, as well as readers in simplified English.

In 1996, Laird returned to Ethiopia, and conceived the idea of collecting folk stories to write English-language readers for Ethiopian schoolchildren so that they could increase their fluency in reading English while enjoying their own cultural heritage. She set up a project with the British Council and the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, and over the following four years undertook journeys to every region of Ethiopia, during the course of which she collected over 300 stories. These have been published in the website www.ethiopianfolktales.com. Another website, www.ethiopianenglishreaders.com, contains eighty-eight of the stories, retold in simplified English, with additional teaching materials. Laird's account of the travels, the storytellers and the stories they told was published by Polygon Books in 2013 under the title The Lure of the Honey Bird.

During these years, Laird visited East Africa many times to research wildlife conservation issues. Assisted by the Kenya Wildlife Service, she wrote the ten novels of the Wild Things series published by Macmillan between 1999 and 2000.

Laird visited Palestine in 2001 to assist in seminars for writers. She met the Palestinian writer Sonia Nimr, and they collaborated on the novel A Little Piece of Ground (Macmillan, 2003).

During her time in Addis Ababa in the 1960s, and later during a visit to Ethiopia in 2003, Laird befriended various street children. Her novel, The Garbage King (Macmillan, 2004)was inspired by these encounters.

In 2008 Laird visited Pakistan to meet boys who had returned from gruelling experiences as camel jockeys in the Gulf countries. The novel Lost Riders (Macmillan, 2008) was the result of her experiences in Pakistan and Dubai.

An abiding interest in folk stories has resulted in retellings of stories from the Middle East and Africa. The Miracle Child (Collins, 1985) and The Road to Bethlehem (Collins, 1987) were both based on traditional Ethiopian stories and illustrated by manuscript paintings from the British Museum. When the World Began Stories from Ethiopia was published by Oxford University Press in 2000 and illustrated by Emma Harding, Griselda Holderness and Lydia Monks. A Fistful of Pearls, and other stories from Iraq (2008), and The Ogress and the Snake, stories from Somalia (2009) were both illustrated by Shelley Fowles and were published by Frances Lincoln. Pea Boy, and other stories from Iran (2009) and a retelling of Firdawsi's Shahnameh (2012) were both illustrated by Shirin Adil, and were also published by Frances Lincoln. Two Crafty Jackals, a retelling of the Kalilah and Dimnah tales from the Panchatantra, with illustrations attributed to the sixteenth century artist Sadiqi Beg, was published by the Aga Khan Museum in 2014.

Laird has written one historical novel for adults (Arcadia Macmillan, 1990) and four historical novels for children (Secrets of the Fearless Macmillan, 2005), Crusade (Macmillan, 2007) The Witching Hour (Macmillan, 2009, published as The Betrayal of Maggie Blair in the US in 2011) and The Prince Who Walked with Lions (Macmillan, 2012). She has been a judge of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since its inception in 2010.

Laird has won many awards including the Children's Book Award, and has been shortlisted five times for the Carnegie Medal for British children's literature.

Since 2000, Laird and McDowall have divided their time between London and Edinburgh.

Selected works[edit]

Young adult[edit]

Picture books[edit]

  • Rosy's Garden (1979)
  • A Book of Promises (1999)
  • Beautiful Bananas (2004)

Short stories[edit]

  • Me and My Electric (1998)
  • Hot Rock Mountain (2004)

Awards and nominations[edit]

  • Red Sky in the Morning – Highly Commended for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Children's Book Award.
  • Hiding Out – Winner of the Smarties Young Judges Award.
  • Jake's Tower – Shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Book Award.
  • The Garbage King – Winner of the Scottish Arts Council Children's Book of the Year award and the Stockport Book award. It has also been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, the Blue Peter Award, the Salford Children's Book Award, the Calderdale Children's Book Award, the Lincolnshire Young People's Book Award, the Stockton Children's Book of the Year, the West Sussex Children's Book Award, the Portsmouth Book Award and the Sheffield Children's Book Award.
  • A Little Piece of Ground – Winner of the Hampshire Book Award and has been shortlisted for the Southern Schools Book Award.


  1. ^ a b O'Reilley, Elizabeth (2008). "Elizabeth Laird". British Council - Literature. Retrieved 2015-03-17. 

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