Account of street life wins young vote

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Author Elizabeth Laird accepts that her novel The Garbage King, about street children in Ethiopia, may not be the first book children take down from the shelf. However, it has won the Scottish Arts Council's Children's Book of the Year award.

The annual book awards, which started in 1972, recognise the best of Scottish literary talent. Laird's was up against King o the Midden edited by Matthew Fitt and James Robertson and Fleshmarket by Nicola Morgan.

This year for the first time children were invited to take part in the judging of the shortlisted children's books. Four readers from the Orange Chatterbooks Library reading groups, ranging from P5 to S2, had the privilege. And it was to these judges that Laird offered special thanks at the award ceremony in Edinburgh.

"It's particularly thrilling for any writer of children's books to be judged by the real readers themselves, the children," she said. "I'm thrilled for The Garbage King. I'm very grateful to you for choosing it because it needs all the help it can get. It's not a book that's particularly likely to be picked up by children. It's against the grain of fantasy and magic and horror and so many other things that children love.

It's a different book."

Although the young judges admitted that it is different to the books they normally read, they recommend it to other children.

Fourteen-year-old Samantha Dudgeon said: "I normally like fantasy books but I really enjoyed this. I thought it was brilliant and I couldn't put it down. It's a very heart-warming book and it makes you think about your own relationships with your friends."

Kate Hopkins, aged 13, said: "It was interesting to see how different the boys were. Mamo was the poor one and Dani was the rich one. It was interesting to see how they came together, how they learned to trust each other."

She was delighted to be one of the judges. "To be able to judge the winning books is something to be proud of. I know I'm very lucky to be able to do this."

Laird's book is based on a true-life account of street children in Addis Ababa. She first went out to Ethiopia as a teacher in 1967 and returned several years later to track down the homeless children she had previously met.

"I used to live in Ethiopia," she explained, "and after 30 years I went back and managed to find two boys who begged from me all those years ago.

They had done well for themselves: one was a lorry driver and the other worked for a tour company. They took me out for lunch and they paid for me and it made me realise that happy endings can happen."

A charity, the Gemini Trust, then arranged for her to talk to a boy living on the street. "It's not easy to get to know street people; they have all been betrayed many times by people," she said.

"We had long sessions in which we both cried. He told me how he had been kidnapped in the street and sold as a slave for the price of a cow. He had been beaten and abused by a farmer and tried to kill himself. He ran away and became a member of a gang."

The boy she spoke to was the inspiration for the main character of the story, Mamo. "He introduced me to the gang and they were very shy about talking to me. I remember we had to go to a narrow passageway to talk.

"I got them food and drink; they particularly wanted milk as they couldn't get it. We had a bit of a feast. Perfect manners they had. And, well, if you want to know more, read The Garbage King."

Marc Lambert, chief executive of the Scottish Book Trust, and one of the judges of the awards, said:"Elizabeth is a great storyteller. The book is not about the hardship but most of all it is the resilience and courage of the children that's highlighted. We need writers like Elizabeth Laird for our children and for ourselves."

Laird has written several successful novels for readers aged 12 and over.

They include Red Sky in the Morning, about a teenage girl whose brother is handicapped, Kiss the Dust, the story of a Kurdish family who are forced to flee Iraq and become asylum seekers in Britain, and A Little Piece of Ground, which is set in Palestine and based around a 12-year-old boy and his friends.

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