Sunday, 10 November 2013


I tell stories, finding them here and there, usually in a paper form, before adapting them to my own way of telling or writing. Not every story suits ever teller. There's even one of those sayings: The Story Finds You.  
The original "plot" might come from a collection such as the Tales of the Brothers Grimm or the codified volumes of Katherine Briggs. The old, familiar resources. However, there are still people who set out inot the world to collect stories. I have always wondered what such a life would be like “in the field”, as archaeologists and anthropologists might call it. 

Then I came across an answer: Wandering into my local library, I glanced at the display of new books, gave a little cry of delight and grabbed. Yes! 

There was a book that I didn’t know existed and one that I so wanted to read: THE LURE OF THE HONEY BIRD: The Storytellers of Ethiopia. Written by Elizabeth Laird, it is an account of just such work, here in the modern world.

I had heard Elizabeth Laird at the 2012 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrators Conference, when she was sharing a session on research methods with Gillian Cross. She is know for many well-researched novels about children in difficult areas of the world. 

Naturally, Laird spoke about all her novels for young people, but she also mentioned a picture book, based on the stories she had collected in Africa, so I knew of that book. But I didn’t know of this newly published book, which is definitely a book for grown-ups. The occasional stories that Laird offers here are not tales that can be swiftly taken into UK schools, in my opinion. ,

Laird, who had both lived in and re-visited Ethiopia, was concerned about the reading books used by children in government schools, especially as the level of literacy within the population is so low. As the official language is now Englis, the often-donated reading books were Eurocentric. The pupils were learning to read using texts that had no relevance to their lives and did not reflect the many varied cultures of that vast land.

Laird mentioned this concern over dinner one night, suggested it might be a good idea if someone collected the traditional tales, wrote them in English, and then each region would end up with its own stories and readers. The project – eventually - was approved and funded and it was Laird who set off, somewhat anxiously, to collect the tales. THE LURE OF THE HONEYBIRD, published by Polygon, is her account of those travels and the stories she found in these ancient and often biblical kingdoms. 

I had to slow down my reading to take in all the details of travels and the landscapes.  Although Laird is "there" in the book, the pages teem with the people and groupings she meets along the way: drivers, translators, officials, the storytellers and many more.  

She does not ignore the huge damage done by forest-clearing, global interests but the pages are also full of admiration for those who live with kindness, resourcefulness and dignity.

Collecting stories in remote and varied regions is definitely not light and easy work. The chapters reveal the long, careful collecting process: the finding of good tellers and good tales, the story sessions in an unknown tongue, the anxiety over recording, the constant work of translation, the re-checking, the writing, the approving by the tellers.  

Continually conscious of herself as a foreigner within these communities, Laird's account also contains all the small things one wants to know about , all the worries, joys, reverses and practical matters that rarely appear in the final, polished reports of projects. The reader is in no doubt as to the difficulties of the work, both the administrative annoyances and the pure physical discomforts and the work is the more admirable than that. I admit that, at times, my knee-bones ached in sympathy for all that sitting on floors or being bumped about in cramped vehicles!  

THE LURE OF THE HONEYBIRD is a wise book about the travels involved in an amazing project. From now on, I shall feel more respect for the tales that I so comfortably collect, and for the intrepid collectors.

Penny Dolan

ps. There is also a website where the stories can be read and heard:


Sue Purkiss said...

What an interesting undertaking. Thanks, Penny.

Joan Lennon said...

What a project! Thanks for telling us about it!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Am definitely going to buy that book. Thank you for telling about it, Penny.

JO said...

What a wonderful project - thanks for telling us about it. Fascinating!