Children’s book author Elizabeth Laird may be 73-years-old, but it’s not difficult for her to be in the mind of a child. Her stories, time and again, resonate with this fact.
Her latest book, Welcome to Nowhere published in January this year is based in Syria and tells the story of Omar, who is not quite 12. All Omar wants to do is be a businessman when he grows up, but war is everywhere, tanks on the road, bombs dropping around him. Omar and his family are forced to flee the only home he has known. As Omar and his family move cities, ultimately crossing the border, Laird describes the horrors unfolding in Syria, taking us into the refugee camps of Jordan, and reminding us how children are the collateral damage of war. In her author’s note, Laird writes, “I wanted to look beyond the long lines of refugees into the faces of individuals to begin to understand how it was for them.”
Far from easy
Writing difficult stories for children is what Laird does. And while it may seem effortless, she puts in spades of research behind each one. “For Welcome to Nowhere, I went to Jordan, worked in refugee camps, and was able to weave their stories together,” says Laird, over a Skype call. She ran writing workshops with teachers and youth trainers in two Syrian refugee camps, and interviewed several people in the course of her work.
In Oranges in No Man’s Land (2006), Laird writes about Ayesha, who must cross one part of Beirut, across no man’s land, to get medicines for her ailing Granny. “I lived in Beirut during the civil war,” says Laird. “We were constantly being bombarded, the city was in ruins.” It’s this experience that Laird weaves into Oranges in No Man’s Land – taking her son for a walk, where soldiers would put their gun down to play with the six-month-old baby; her memory of a fruit stall knocked over – bright golden oranges spilling into the street; and the streets rife with tension.
Born in New Zealand, Laird’s family moved to Britain in 1945 and she grew up in South London. Laird has taught in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, where she later started a folk story collective. She has lived in and travelled extensively across conflict-ridden counties. Many of them have sparked stories including the historic novel Crusade (2007) where two children cross paths during the third crusade of the late 12th century and A Little Piece of Ground (2003), about a boy in Palestine who wants to play football. Her stories work because they ring true, and not like someone who doesn’t understand the landscape that they are set in.
Laird has also taught in India – she even met her husband in a flight to Bhopal. “I was on a flight from Mumbai with a migraine,” recalls Laird. “The man sitting next to me was incredibly nice. I was throwing up and he held the bag! What a lovely man, I thought. That’s the man I married. We’ve been married for 42 years now.”
Laird was pleasantly surprised to learn that her books are available in India, a country that she has an ancient association with, because of her two great grandfathers. “It was the bad old days,” says Laird, sounding apologetic, explaining that one of her great grandfather had been a missionary in Rajkot in Gujarat, and the other tea planter in Assam. This led to her writing Dindy and the Elephant (2015), set in pre-Independence India, where two British children live on a tea estate. Their mother is, as Laird describes, a racist and prejudiced monster, and the children are clueless about life outside their home. “I wanted to tackle the racism here [in the West],” explains Laird, who went to Munnar in Kerala to do research for the book.
Writing happened to Laird by accident. When her son was two, he became obsessed with a book and would want it read all the time. Laird couldn’t help but wonder – why this book about a boy who falls down, gets hurt, and picks himself – fascinated him. She says, “Then I realised, it was about pain – all children experience pain. I try to think of stories that have actual, real meaning to children.” That got her to write a set of four books on emotions.
Later, her editor asked if she would like to write a novel. “I told her, I don’t think I know what to write about!” exclaims Laird. The conversation lead to Red Sky in the Morning (1988), about a girl who is devoted to her brother who is born with hydrocephalus (water in the brain). While her books are rooted in extremely real circumstances, Laird is careful not to put in real people in her stories. The only exception being Red Sky. “My little brother died at seven. The baby in the book is my little brother. I am not the girl in the book, the family is not mine, but he is,” she says.
Real life problems
Laird’s stories rummage deep into conflict and trying situations to remind us of the little hopes and aspirations that children dream of, their problems, their wishes, and how that all reduces to rubble when politics and terror unfold in their lives. Laird’s books portray how children cope with these extraordinary circumstances, while holding on to their innate childhood, and growing up too fast. At one point in Welcome to Nowhere, Omar says, “I don’t understand what’s really going on, who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s bad. I just want things to go back to the way they were before. But I know they never will.”
Often dark, always compelling, Laird’s stories are tinged with hope. “I want children to admire the characters and feel hope for them,” says Laird, who goes on to talk about the Islamophobia the world is gripped with. “It’s about fighting ignorance and prejudice. The whole point of fiction is that it encourages empathy, that it fights against prejudice which creates violence. Kids should read about war. They’ve read about giants, witches, djinns – somehow it’s alright to be frightened in fantasy tales, and that’s completely misguided,” she asserts.
Shielding children from the conflicts taking place across the globe is not the solution and Laird’s books offer a window into this world. “Children see the news all the time, they see it on TV, on the phone, they see newspaper headlines. They are not immune from what’s happening in the world, they worry about it,” says Laird.
Shades of good and evil
Laird’s characters are not the usual black-and-white sorts. Instead, they come in all sorts of greys, just when you start disliking a character, she elicits a redeeming quality in that person. “If you don’t believe in your characters, you don’t really feel for them,” says Laird. “The aim is to step into the shoes of another person. Children should look around them, they can see the world through different eye. They know no one, including them, is perfect. I want them to understand a person who is nasty and they actually may come up with good points.”
When Laird is not writing, she is busy growing vegetables in her garden. Her husband and she divide their time between London and Edinburgh. She describes her garden with its fruit trees of plum, damson, fig, cherry, and apple. “If we all took more responsibility for our footprint on the planet, everybody would stop consuming so much,” Laird says, who is now writing a book about dolphins and pollution.