Dubai’s very own Julia Johnson, author of The Leopard Boy and the creator of Humpy Grumpy Camel, tells Time Out Kids about her love of nature and the Middle East’s fascinating heritage.
What is it about the animal kingdom that so inspires you?
It’s something I’ve always been interested in – my mother had a natural affinity with animals, and I don’t remember her being afraid of anything, so I think I must have inherited that from her. My feeling now is to draw people’s attention to wildlife.
With my book The Leopard Boy, for example, when I first arrived in Dubai, there were still mountain leopards living wild in the UAE. I remember a picture in a newspaper back in the 1980s, of a mountain village with leopard skins strung across two trees. In a way, you can understand why the people who lived on the land were killing them, because they were eating their livestock. But we have to live side by side, and do depend on each other.
Have you always been a writer?
It’s kind of something I’ve always done – my background is drama, and making up plays. I used to run a theatre and education company here in the UAE, and used to belong to one in the UK, and we always created our plays about issues that were relevant to the children, involving them in some way. When I first came to Dubai in 1975, someone discovered that I liked acting, and suggested that I might like to read stories on the radio, and then as a result of that I had a spot on TV, doing bed time stories for kids. There wasn’t much for kids in English back then. In order to read suitable stories, I had to look at dozens, and started writing reviews for one of the local papers.
I ended up being asked to write a ‘Let’s Visit the UAE’ book for children – this was a really useful stepping stone, as I was able to find out about all sorts of things that sparked my imagination, such as discovering the falcon hospital, or seeing oryx at the wildlife park.
Your stories about the Middle East are often set in the past – how did you find out more about what it really used to be like?
I love writing about the historical side, because while a city like Dubai is hectic, huge, and a lot of fun, it’s easy to forget where it’s all come from. When I started writing, I couldn’t help but think, there are so many fascinating subjects to write about here – why haven’t they been written about before? I have to do a lot of research along the way. For my book, Saluki Hound of the Bedouin, I met Hamad Al Ghanem, a saluki breeder who took me under his wing, to the breeding centre and to an old village in the desert. For The Leopard Boy, I’ve travelled extensively in Oman, I’ve even done drama workshops with old men in mountain villages.
The heroes of your books are often feisty young characters from the region – how did you make them feel real?
As an expat writing about local cultures, you always err on the side of caution, but I’ve been very fortunate to often get invited into local schools and women’s colleges to talk about what I do. For my latest story, which revolves around the UAE’s native turtle species, I was able to visit Latifah School to talk to some local girls for some feedback. I wanted to know if my leading character, an Emirati girl who wants to be a marine biologist, was possible or realistic. My friend who works at the school put together a discussion group of local, 15-year-old girls, who spoke very openly about their relationships with their families. I asked them if it was possible for a girl like them to become a marine biologist, from the diving and what they’d wear in the water, to their families’ expectations. One girl piped up, ‘Not everything you put in your story, has to be exactly the way it is now, anyway. If you’re creating a role model now, and the character is 10 years old, by the time she would be old enough to become a marine biologist, attitudes might have changed.’ I thought it was such a mature, thoughtful thing to say.
Ages 7+, March 9, 3pm-4pm, Al Khaimah.