Tag Archives: Elizabeth Laird

Welcome to Nowhere

I was expecting a story about how life in Syria got so awful that Omar and his family had to leave, becoming refugees and ending up in Britain after much hardship on the way, followed by their life here, and how they were received.

Elizabeth Laird, Welcome to Nowhere

That’s not the story Elizabeth Laird wrote, however. Welcome to Nowhere is exactly that; it’s about a family of seven, who have to leave their home in Bosra when the troubles in Syria begin, and they move in with Omar’s grandmother. Soon they have to flee again, and again. In the end they really do end up in ‘Nowhere.’

Omar is about 13 when we first meet the family, with an older sister and an older brother, who has cerebral palsy, plus two younger siblings. The father works for the government, something that turns out not to be so good in a country where civil war is about to break out.

This is the Syrian crisis from the inside. I’ve read the papers and seen the news on television, but I didn’t know it like this. There isn’t all that much about the actual, physical war. It’s more how a normal family tries to survive, as the reality of the situation slowly dawns on them. How they realise that they might never go home.

Elizabeth Laird as always is very good at showing the reader how people in other countries live. It’s one of the most valuable things about her writing, as well as the thrill of her plots. So we learn how Omar is the one who does things, his clever older sister is destined to be married off, when all she wants is to go to school, and Musa is invariably described as a cripple and an imbecile, even by [some] members of his own family, when he is also extremely intelligent. Their mother has to obey her husband, and it is fascinating to see what it takes to make her stand up to the men in her life.

They all grow up in this story. I’m not sure who grows the most.

Welcome to Nowhere has completely changed how I look at Syria, leaving me wanting to do more, but feeling helpless in what has become a country against refugees.

Everyone should read this book.

Elizabeth Laird, Welcome to Nowhere (illustration by Lucy Eldridge)

(Atmospheric illustrations by Lucy Eldridge.)

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She ‘hearts books’

Yvonne Manning

‘Have you spoken to Yvonne Manning?’ (I have, as matter of fact.) It’s Yvonne who runs Falkirk’s RED book awards, and it is she who ‘hearts books’ to such an extent that she wore a hearty sort of hat yesterday. Red, obviously, along with the other red accessories we had all unearthed in our wardrobes. Although the students from a Falkirk school had gone one better and got themselves red hair for the day, even if it was in the form of red wigs.

RED 2018

For the 2017 RED awards, their 12th one, they had shortlisted Alwyn Hamilton, Elizabeth Laird, Tanya Landman and Dan Smith. I thought this was a very decent list of people, and I was very happy to be conveyed to Falkirk to see them, even if they were one Elizabeth Laird short. She was very sorry. So were we.

RED book awards 2018

Over a custard cream (it would have been rude not to) I chatted to Anne Ngabia from Grangemouth High, about her latest batch of books waiting to travel to Kenya. And she introduced me to her handsome assistant Sandy.

I said hello to Tanya Landman, who had braved the Monday Bank Holiday traffic to travel from Devon, and who was pleased to have been to see the Kelpies. Dan Smith remembered me from the Manchester Chicken House breakfast, and was a little confused as to how I follow him around the country, living in different towns.

And I was introduced to Alwyn Hamilton, and finally got a little chat. We covered topics such as lipstick (I had no idea they were that expensive!) and Star Wars, and travelling abroad to see movies in the right language in the cinema.

As the coaches ferried Falkirk’s young readers to fth (Falkirk Town Hall), the authors took turns being interviewed by some of the students, and Dan turned out to be a sharpie-carrying man, always prepared. (I must copy him.) His school visit to Denny the day before, prompted the conversation to move on to Kirkland Ciccone, as conversations sometimes do. (Are your ears burning, Kirkie?)

Tanya Landman, Dan Smith and Alwyn Hamilton

When it was time for the proceedings to start, Yvonne donned her red fairy lights as well as something looking suspiciously like heart shaped sunglasses. Red. Or possibly pink. Schools were introduced, the authors were introduced, their books were introduced, and tidiness was mentioned as something that could be rewarded.

The programme was slightly changed from earlier years. Instead of dramatising the books on stage, the schools had filmed short clips on how they imagined their allotted shortlisted books.

Cake queue

Cake

In the break there was coffee and cake for the adults, which made me feel quite grown-up and had me running for the carrot cake, with a tiny carrot on top. Had time for a little gossip with the authors before they went off to judge the students’ alternate book cover art, and signing books, and all kinds of other items.

Signing queue

Dan Smith

Alwyn Hamilton

Tanya Landman

Yvonne Manning and dancers

Anne Ngabia began the second half with a greeting in Swahili, showing us a video clip from a school in Kenya, and another of some dancing, to mirror the dancing going on at fth. She showed us one of her libraries from ten years ago; shelves full of books. And then we saw the same library today, with empty shelves, because the books have been read to shreds. They need new ones!

Then there were prizes for best reviews, best covers, best red accessories. If you could have a prize for something, it was bound to be awarded. In the end, there was even a prize for the author of the winning book. Not yet, though.

Yvonne manning

First the authors got to sit on the blue velvet sofas and answer questions from the audience. One was about playing the game Fortnite, another why one would want to become an author (because you get to read and go on holiday and call it research). Advice for future authors is to turn off all your devices and daydream.

Yvonne Manning, Dan Smith, Tanya Landman and Alwyn Hamilton

Dan has wanted to be Bear Gryll, or possibly a rock star. Alwyn wanted to go into advertising, while Tanya’s earlier ambitions were astronaut, ballerina, or at least to be a monkey. Writer’s block is not a block, merely a wrong turn. Taking the dogs for a walk is good, and you should just keep writing.

All Dan’s books are ‘awesome,’ Tanya feels you must love all your books, and Alwyn actually has a favourite; her second book. Asked if they’d like to stop to write something funny, the answer was a resounding ‘no!’

Someone wanted to know if Tanya had ever been eaten by a zoo animal, but the closest she’d come was being badly scratched by a really cute tiger cub. Favourite genres are ‘good books’ for Dan, YA for Alwyn and ‘not supernatural’ for Tanya. After a last game question for Dan, it was time for the RED book award.

Instead of the Provost of former years, I’d been sitting next to a glamorous looking lady, whose job it turned out to be to hand over the awards (I have completely managed to forget her name, though…). And the winner was, Elizabeth Laird for Welcome to Nowhere! As she wasn’t present, she doesn’t yet know what an absolutely fantastic prize is coming her way. Anne Ngabia has made yet another tapestry, featuring [past winning] books on a shelf.

RED book awards 2017

Alwyn, Tanya and Dan were given runner-up prizes, which looked too large to be carried home with any ease (I have now seen the inside of Tanya’s suitcase). Photographs were taken, and Dan will be practising how to smile and flick his hair (that one will be hard) to look as great in photos as Alwyn.

Tanya Landman, Dan Smith and Alwyn Hamilton

There was lunch for the grown-ups, and train timetables were studied, as bags were squished and repacked. I discovered Falkirk Grahamston station was twice as far away as it used to be.

Oh well, these things happen.

Scottish Book Trust Awards 2018

After months of secrecy, all the Scottish Book Trust Awards for this year have been made public, culminating in an awards ceremony in Edinburgh last night.

I don’t actually know where to start. They are all important, so does one go from less to more, or the other way round?

OK, I’ll go with the Learning Professional Award. Where would we be without such hardworking people, especially someone who sounds as absolutely fabulous as Eileen Littlewood, Head Teacher at Forthview Primary in Edinburgh? First I marvelled at all Eileen has achieved, and then I quickly felt both exhausted and not a little envious of all her great work.

Eileen Littlewood upright pic - credit Jonathan Ley

When Eileen started, the school library had been dismantled, and in order to create her vision of an in-house library catering for all ages, she applied for and secured over £10k of funding. She was able to start a reading community, and also helped the Family Support Teacher to start a parent book group, using Quick Reads and comic books to engage parents who were reluctant to read.

Eileen has established a paired reading initiative, has organised author visits to the school and has ensured her staff are trained to deliver reading projects. She also runs a lunchtime book club for pupils, as well as regular writing workshops. And she has recently worked with parents to create a book of poems on mental health to share with their children.

The Outstanding Achievement Award has gone to Vivian French, who has written hundreds of books. She has also worked hard to promote books by other authors and illustrators. Vivian is not only an inspiring figure to those in the industry, but has also acted as a mentor to budding authors and artists. Vivian is an active advocate for dyslexia.

In 2012, she and Lucy Juckes set up Picture Hooks, a mentoring scheme to encourage emerging Scottish illustrators.  And Vivian has been Children’s Writer-in-Residence at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and a guest selector for the children’s programme. She also teaches at Edinburgh College of Art in the illustration department and is a Patron of the Borders Book Festival.

Vivian French wide pic - credit Jonathan Ley

Vivian’s comment to all this was; ‘I have the most wonderful time visiting schools and festivals, tutoring young illustrators, talking (always talking!) and discussing books and pictures… surely such an award should be for someone who’s earned it by the sweat of their brow? Not someone like me, who skips about having such a very lovely time! I’m not ungrateful – truly I’m not – it’s the most amazing award to be given… but I’m going to redouble my efforts now to ensure that I really deserve it.’

There’s modesty, and then there’s modesty. Vivian deserves this award!

SBT_BPBP_18_web-2124

And finally, there’s the Bookbug Picture Book Prize for Gorilla Loves Vanilla by Chae Strathie and Nicola O’Byrne, and the Scottish Teenage Book Prize to Caighlan Smith for Children of Icarus.

Caighlan Smith

Mustn’t forget to mention runners-up Michelle Sloan and Kasia Matyjaszek, Debi Gliori and Alison Brown, Danny Weston and Elizabeth Laird.

Phew, what a lot of talent and good books!

Oranges in No Man’s Land

It seems so easy; write about what you know, what you have experienced, just a simple little story. Can’t be much to it, can it?

Looking at Elizabeth Laird, you realise that that isn’t true. It takes a lot of talent to write a short children’s novel like Oranges in No Man’s Land, even if she did base it on what she had lived through with her family, in Beirut, many years ago.

Elizabeth Laird, Oranges in No Man's Land

And her foreword to this book when it was first published in 2006, was about her own story, and also how sad she was to find history repeating itself, with more unrest for Beirut, thirty years on from when she lived there. Now, of course, there is more sadness still, because after another ten years many more children and their parents are suffering like Ayesha and the others did. Not perhaps in Beirut, but not that far away, either. The destruction and the deaths of innocent civilians happen in far too many countries.

What’s more, if you read Oranges in No Man’s Land and you feel that it isn’t right, what happens to young children and their grannies, or even to their ‘enemies,’ you know that what happens in countless places all over the world is wrong.

You feel that people will learn, that they will change. If I’d been a child reading this in 2006, I’d have been full of hope that things would get better now.

10-year-old Ayesha lives with her mother and grandmother and her two brothers in a small house, when they are bombed and have to flee. Her mother dies before she can get out. The children eventually end up in a bombed out flat, well, part of a room in one, with their granny. And then Ayesha’s granny’s medicine comes to an end and to save her granny’s life the girl has to cross no man’s land and go to the other side of Beirut, where the enemy live.

More than anything, this story shows that mostly people are still human beings, before they are your enemies. They can and will be decent, and they will help, sometimes putting themselves in danger. But you can’t control the warlords.

Elizabeth’s experience is having temporarily lived in a flat like this one, with her young family, and having spoken to the soldiers at checkpoints. That’s why it rings true, and why this is a tremendously powerful story. Short, but it tells you about what’s important for humanity.

Here I Stand

Here is a book you should all read. Here I Stand is an anthology for Amnesty International, where a number of our greatest authors and poets and illustrators have come together and written short pieces about the injustices in life as they see them.

Here I Stand

John Boyne writes about child abuse and Liz Kessler deals with same sex love. Both stories are hard to read, but at the same time they are uplifting and they make you think.

And it is repeated in every single contribution to this volume, whether by Jackie Kay or Jack Gantos, Sarah Crossan or Frances Hardinge. Bali Rai, Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Laird are others who have important things to say about why life is far from right for many people in the world.

People who can be jailed or executed for the most normal behavior, or those who are simply too poor or too unfortunate in various ways. People for whom we need to continue fighting.

There is much in this book to think about. Please think about it.

Dindy and the Elephant

There is less elephant in this book by Elizabeth Laird than the title leads you to expect. But that’s OK. What’s there is quite satisfying, and I feel as though I could almost deal with an angry elephant.

Elizabeth Laird, Dindy and the Elephant

I have to admit to a particular fondness for period fiction from India, and former British Empire countries in Africa. This one is set in India, on a tea plantation between the end of the war and just before Indian independence.

Nine-year-old Dindy and her brother Pog, who’s only six, escape from their bungalow one day when bored, despite not being allowed out. That’s when they encounter the potentially dangerous elephant.

But this is mostly about how much love ‘British’ children born and growing up in India have for their country, and how people of their parents’ generation don’t necessarily share that love. Dindy’s mother hates India and looks down on the natives, including those who work for the family.

Prejudice from both sides emerges and it’s interesting to see how they deal with a bad situation, and also what their feelings really are.

Very lovely little book. Whereas there might be no point in a sequel, I rather feel it’d be nice to see what happened next.

The Fastest Boy in the World

I need to read more by Elizabeth Laird! Whatever the subject, she makes it interesting. I mention this because in a way I wouldn’t say that a story about a small boy in Ethiopia who likes running sounds terribly exciting. But it is.

The Fastest Boy in the World builds on the experience Elizabeth has of Ethiopia, and running, and the old Emperor. In what is a pretty short book, the reader gets not only the story about an 11-year-old boy in the Ethiopian countryside who runs everywhere (because they are poor and school is five miles away, and Ethiopians like running), but some understanding of life in Ethiopia and what it takes to become a successful runner, as well as a brief history lesson on what the last few decades have been like.

That’s a lot.

Simply put, it’s about Solomon who gets to accompany his grandfather on the walk to Addis Ababa (just over 20 miles), and when they get there he makes an important discovery about the old man, just before his grandfather collapses, and Solomon has to run all the way home to tell his father what has happened.

Elizabeth Laird, The Fastest Boy in the World

This is so interesting! You learn about Ethiopian family values, and what people in this distant country are like. You get an inkling of how very important running is, and how it can become an ambition that carries a young boy into the future, because he knows what happened in the past.

It’s so lovely I could re-read it now.

Nicely classical illustrations by Peter Bailey.