Dubai: British expat Julia Johnson came to live in Dubai with her husband Brian in 1975.
It was a thirst for adventure that brought them to the UAE. Johnson has lived that adventure in Dubai with her family, and decided to pen children’s stories with the background of UAE’s rich culture and heritage.
Her first book The Pearl Diver, published in 2003, is now part of the curriculum of primary schools in the UAE and the Gulf region.
“I spent my early life in drama and the performing theatre. I acted in several plays, and it was a natural progression to start writing,” said Johnson speaking at the opening ceremony of the 16th edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2024 at the Dubai Festival City.
She has also read stories on radio and TV, narrated stories for audio book companies, run drama workshops for young people and toured schools with Theatre-in-Education productions.
Why children book
When 22 years ago Johnson decided to start writing, she decided to pen children’s books with a focus on UAE culture and history.
“I want to arouse children’s curiosity and interest, their desire to find out more. When you arrive in a new place it’s natural to want to find out about it, to understand it. It’s important for all of us to appreciate and respect and celebrate local culture and traditions. Stories help us understand one another.
She had to research considerably before authoring her first book The Pearl Diver.
“I met an old man who was a pearl diver and got to understand more about his profession,” she recalled.
Johnson said she showed her story to Isobel Abulhoul, Trustee and chief executive at the Emirates Literature Foundation. “She read the story and said a publisher would be interested. I met the publisher who liked my story.”
Johnson said after her first book was published she wanted to write more on the history of UAE to educate children.
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Other notable works
The Goat Who Wanted To Fly is a heartwarming tale about perseverance and having the courage to pursue your dreams. The narrative follows the adventures of a young goat as she tries to find a way to fly. Despite going against the advice of her family, she eventually succeeds in her quest, with the aid of a kind stranger, and meets new friends and danger along the way.
Aimed at three- to six-year-olds, the book features pop-up artwork and charming illustrations of the UAE’s wildlife and mountains. The central ideas in the book are life lessons for children: never give up on your dreams and always explore new ways to do things when faced with a challenge.
The Turtle Secret
The Turtle Secret is another interesting tale of a ten-year-old Arab girl, Hessa, and her mission to save turtles. When Hessa rescues a turtle in the market, she takes it to her uncle, a marine biologist. She finds herself captivated by these incredible sea creatures and their precarious way of life. But with a sister about to get married and a father still grieving after her mother’s death, Hessa finds that no one at home has time for her and her passion for turtles. The book also touches on common themes that resonate with contemporary readers, such as the local culture and the wildlife of the region, as well as the role of women in Emirati society.
Johnson, who loved dressing up as a child and making up stories, has won the Best International Children’s Book award at the Sharjah International Book Fair twice, with The Turtle Secret in 2014 and The Secret of The Cave in 2019.
The Leopard Boy was awarded a Kirkus star in America, and Michael Morpurgo (Johnson’s favourite author) called it “A beautiful story, a wise and wonderfully told tale”.
Aisha’s Pearl, published in 2022, was her first collaboration with illustrator Maitha Al Khayat. Their second book together is Aisha’s Cake, released in 2023, is showcased at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2024.