Julia Johnson is a treasure trove of folklore and facts on the UAE. And having lived in the country since 1975, these nuggets of knowledge have naturally found a place in the books she’s written for children over the years. The 15th offering in her impressive back catalogue (including critically acclaimed The Leopard Boy) is The Turtle Secret, (published by Motivate) which debuted at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature this year.
The story offers an in-depth study into local culture through her protagonist Hessa, a 10-year- old Emirati girl who expresses an enduring passion for the sea and the environment and who dreams of becoming a marine biologist when she grows up.
As an expat, Johnson, originally from Yorkshire, England, admits she was mindful not to “step on any cultural toes” in her quest for authenticity during the development of Hessa’s character. When working out the details of the little girl’s home life – delving into her relationship with her father, uncle and older sister after the death of her mother, and the impact of that loss on the family – Johnson took her research seriously.
“I had a lovely conversation session with some girls at the Latifa School for Girls in Dubai,” she says. “I wanted to discuss their family relationships, particularly with their parents and what their ambitions are, and how they see their future.”
The author recalls one “very wise comment” made after she told the girls about Hessa’s ambition to become a marine biologist. “This one girl said, ‘Well, she’s only 10 now, in eight years’ time, why not? Keep her like that because she’s an excellent role model for us.’ I thought that was an extremely mature remark.”
Johnson’s books are targeted at a young audience (eight to 12 years old), but her stories cross the boundaries between young and old and have proved entertaining to the occasional adult reader keen on enriching their knowledge of the UAE.
“I’ve tried to weave in other cultural aspects like food and weddings, too, as the story is not just about turtles,” she says. “It’s about family relationships and living in the UAE today, which is very different to how it was several years ago. There are a lot of Western and outside influences [in this region] and Emirati families want to hold on to their values and cultures. I think that is one of the struggles that I’ve tried to suggest here and there in the story.”
The Turtle Secret has already initiated dialogue about conservation of the natural environment and the role of women in the Gulf – thanks to Hessa’s ambitious spirit. “Women here are becoming all sorts of things – pilots, doctors, etc. Things have changed over the years,” Johnson says. She also feels strongly about not patronising younger readers. “It’s totally unnecessary to talk down to children,” she says. “How is their vocabulary going to get richer if you do? If I use a word a reader hasn’t used before I’d expect the reader to understand it because of the context. I believe the teachers call them wow words nowadays.”
Travelling around the UAE conducting workshops and talks in English language schools, Johnson has seen her books (and ‘wow words’) become an integral part of the curriculum to help expose expatriate students to UAE culture and history. But she insists this was never intentional: “The fact that my stories may have an educational content is incidental,” she says. “Yes, I want readers to know more about the UAE. But I don’t write to teach people a lesson. It’s a subliminal thing that happens because you’re trying to make a story and the setting real.”
And she knows the setting well. Johnson trained as a drama teacher and worked as part of a local theatre company in Yorkshire, UK, before she moved to the UAE with her architect husband, Brian, at the age of 24.
“When we first came here it was just an adventure,” she recalls. “We thought we’d stick around for a year or two, explore, discover and then something went wrong, or in our case right, and we ended up staying!”
Johnson has a son and a daughter, who are both in their mid-30s.
Her eldest, Emily, settled in the UK with her husband and three children and illustrated Johnson’s rhyme books A is for Arabia (2012) and One Humpy Grump Camel (2005).
Johnson’s son Alexander, 35, currently lives in Abu Dhabi. “I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of old Dubai and see it evolve and bring up my children here,” she says.
Johnson’s love of drama led her into a creative field of work on first moving to the UAE.
“A friend suggested I read children’s stories on the radio,” she says. “I did and also started reading bedtime stories for children on TV on Dubai Channel 33.”
While her first love is “dressing up and acting out stories”, she’s kept writing close. “Writing was always there, even when researching stories I’d read on the radio or compiling the odd article,” she says. “I’ve always jotted down notes on how to improve stories or ideas for new ones, even before I actually wrote my first book.”
In 1987 a friend asked her to write a travel guide to the region. “I wrote a sample chapter that they liked and just asked me to go right ahead,” Johnson says. The book, Let’s Visit the UAE, published by Macmillan, gave her the opportunity to research things like economy and religion, culture, geographical terrain, the people and the animals, and she embraced the challenge. “I did a lot of research and discovered all sorts of things about the region I didn’t know about, which really surprised me.”
Shortly afterwards, events took Johnson back to the UK where she stayed, enrolling her children in school there, until her husband’s work brought them back to the UAE in 2001. She then got to work on her first novel, The Pearl Diver (2001).
“I wanted to set [the story] here in the UAE and I thought pearl diving would be a really interesting story,” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated by it since I first saw the exhibition in Dubai Museum years earlier. I couldn’t find any existing stories on it, so I decided to write my own and that’s really how it all started.”
Six-year-old Saeed’s experiences in The Pearl Diver echo Johnson’s feelings of her first scuba dive and she admits finding it easier to write from personal experience.
“When you’re writing you’ve got to feel passionate about it, so I tend to pour my feelings into the story,” she says. “Hessa very much embodied some of my thoughts and feelings on turtles. I’ve seen turtles lay eggs in Ras Al Had and hatchlings hurry to the sea in Oman and Sri Lanka. Animals will always be a part of my stories.”
Johnson, now in her 60s, grew up on a mini-menagerie at home in the north of England surrounded by enough animals to fill a pet shop. She had a dog, rabbit and guinea pigs, donkey, a crow and a ram, to name but a few. Johnson credits her mother Barbara for inspiring the long-standing animal themes in her work. “My mother was a very thoughtful animal lover, so I’ve always had that and my love of animals has always transferred into my storytelling”.
The likes of the Saluki Hound of the Bedouin (2005) and her popular novel The Leopard Boy (2011) followed – the latter dealing with little goatherder Khalid, who lives in the mountains of Oman. The boy meets an old man who teaches him about respecting and protecting the beauty of a leopard they encounter.
The book was picked up by children’s laureate and author of the famed War Horse, Michael Morpurgo, who happily offered a glowing testimonial to Johnson for the cover while in Dubai for the 2011 Emirates literature festival. “I was ecstatic when he said, ‘I’ve read it and I absolutely love it’,” Johnson recalls. “His stories are very much to do with animals, environment, and relationships. So I think if anybody’s influenced me, it’s him.”
The Leopard Boy successfully raised awareness around the world about the endangered Arabian leopard. Johnson explains: “In the Eighties there were still Arabian leopards here in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah but, unfortunately, people in the villages didn’t realise how endangered they were and if they saw one they’d shoot it. You can’t blame them as their livestock was at risk and they probably didn’t realise what a valued tourist attraction they could become.”
Johnson feels she is doing her bit to help spread awareness on environmental issues. “We all think ‘what can I do to save the planet?’ But everybody can do something and for me it’s writing stories.”
The grandmother-of-three confesses she has been a bit of an adrenaline junkie in her time, enjoying the likes of skydiving and paragliding when she’s not writing. “I’ve had to calm down a little bit recently, but I was used to doing fairly hairy sorts of things,” she laughs.
Now she looks for ways of channelling her love of adventure into her stories instead. “I like writing an exciting story, reaching a climax,” she says. “I like to think of my readers as detectives piecing together the pieces of information as a character like Hessa gradually pieces together the same puzzle.”
Johnson’s stories have successfully captured the flavour, the culture and the beauty of the Arabian Peninsula and her books are now translated into Arabic.
She does, however, regret not learning Arabic herself. “If you go to the mountains here there are still some people who have interesting stories to tell me. But the language barrier plays havoc,” she says. “You have to get out and talk to people.
“You can’t know Dubai by visiting the Palm or one or two restaurants,” she says. “You’ve got to go and visit the old parts of Dubai – the aquariums, the museum. And most importantly you need to talk to Emiratis.
“It’s one of the things I try to initiate through my books: when you’ve read a story of mine I hope you’re left with a sense of thoughtfulness and wonder and ask questions about your surroundings and that it encourages you to want to know more.”