Dubai’s Ju­lia John­son on The Tur­tle Se­cret.

Pop­u­lar chil­dren’s au­thor Ju­lia John­son did her re­search to cap­ture an Emi­rati girl’s hopes and dreams grow­ing up in the UAE, she tells Shreeja Ravin­dranathan

Friday - - Contents - The Tur­tle Se­cret is avail­able for Dh49 on Ama­zon.com, For more in­for­ma­tion on John­son’s work see: www.ju­li­ajohn­son.ae

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, 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-yearold 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 ofWestern 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.”

‘You’ve got to feel pas­sion­ate when writ­ing, so I tend to pour my feel­ings into the story’

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 long­stand­ing 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.”

John­son’s books have proved very pop­u­lar at the Emi­rates lit­er­a­ture fes­ti­val

Like most of her books, The Leop­ard Boy re­flects John­son’s love of na­ture

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