A creative soul

If you don’t know her name, you will surely recognise her books. Here’s how Julia Johnson became Dubai’s best-loved children’s author

Children’s author Julia Johnson needs no introduction. With more than 20 children’s books under her belt, her name is synonymous with classics such as Humpy Grumpy Camel and The Pearl Diver, titles that have become an integral part of the UAE school curriculum. Lesser known is that Johnson trained as a teacher in the UK before moving to Dubai in 1975 (with a stint back home from 1989-2001) and that she regularly visits primary schools to conduct drama workshops with students.

“For the younger children, I use puppets to represent my characters, such as the Humpy Grumpy Camel,” Johnson explains. “To tell the story of my new book, Lizard and Toad, I have lizard and toad characters and I sometimes use video clips or a PowerPoint to explain things. I have some atmospheric film footage of pearl diving, for instance.”

Johnson was 24 when she moved to Dubai with her husband. One of her first jobs was reading bedtime stories for children on the radio. She also narrated spooky stories for adults for a radio slot called ‘listen if you dare’. Later, she was asked to read stories live on television. She was soon asked to write book reviews for a local newspaper and then articles for Emirates Woman and Time Out.

The first site Johnson visited back then was the Dubai Museum. “I was fascinated by the history of pearl diving in the area and that inspired my first book. It happened by accident,” Johnson remembers. “I started collecting historical artefacts after that.” It was Magrudy’s bookshop founder Isobel Abulhoul who recommended a publisher; Pearl Diver was released in 2003.

“As a child I loved dressing up and acting,” she says. “Although I was quite shy in many ways, I always felt at home on the stage. One of the first roles I played at school was Alice in Alice in Wonderland, and although I was nervous I enjoyed every minute. It was exciting being ‘inside’ a story. My first passion was drama and I went on to study it at college when I trained as a teacher.”

Nothing has surprised her more than the adoption by schools of her books into their curriculum. “I was surprised but also delighted,” Johnson exclaims. “I didn’t expect my books to be used so widely. In fact, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) have issued large quantities of several of my titles to their schools. It’s wonderful as I now feel that my stories have a role and are thought-provoking.”

Children’s author Julia Johnson during one of her drama workshops with children at the Emirates Festival of Literature in February

Johnson loves animals and nature and credits her mother for this. She says that growing up in the UK, she and her sister Melissa always had lots of pets, and her mother adopted creatures that needed a home all her life. She had a sheep, a crow that couldn’t fly and an old donkey among other wild and wonderful creatures. “Animals often come into my stories and I think stories can help to highlight environmental problems, raise awareness and make people think,” she says. Johnson’s book The Leopard Boy did exactly this, depicting the Arabian Leopard, which is on the brink of extinction.

Her workshop at the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (for kids aged 8-11 years) focused on how to become our future selves, escaping from a fire (inspired by the tragic events in Australia), and inventing things to help combat future disasters. She is an advocate of not ‘talking down’ to children. “I use larger words in context so that the meaning is obvious,” she says. “How will they learn otherwise?”

How important is it to foster creativity in children? “I think youngsters have a natural imagination, but it also needs to be encouraged. Screen time can interfere with it. It’s important for parents and children to read together and to tell stories.”

These days, in her mid-60s, Johnson is a grandmother of five, aged from newborn to 18 years. Her daughter now illustrates some of her books. She has recorded more than 100 audio books. Johnson plans to write her first play. It appears she has no intention of slowing down. What good news that is.

Julia Johnson visits primary schools to conduct author workshops for children aged 4-12 years. In these workshops, Johnson introduces her characters and stories, tackles environmental themes and explores UAE traditions and cultures in a fun way.
For more, email Julia at jj_bj51@eim.ae