How hard can it be… a simple tale, a funny character or two, and perhaps some rhyming words; surely we all have a children’s book inside us? But if it was so simple, wouldn’t everyone have penned an engaging children’s stories? We spoke to two homegrown UAE-based literary talents, Ebtisam Al Beiti and Julia Johnson, to gain an insight into the art of writing (and publishing) a children’s book.
An icon in the UAE children’s literary scene, Julia Johnson’s first children’s book, the Pearl Diver, was published in 2003, and is now read and enjoyed in Primary schools throughout the Gulf and beyond. The former drama teacher has since written more than 30 stories for children and won numerous literary awards for her work.
Ebtisam Al Beiti, the energetic new-kid-on-the-block in the UAE children’s literary scene, began writing during the pandemic. The former early years teacher had been quietly harbouring dreams of authoring children’s books, but it took the world coming to an abrupt halt for her to find the time. Now, with two regional hits under her belt, Ebtisam Al Beiti is fast becoming an established name.
These two inspiring writers shared lessons they have learned along the way and their top tips for budding children’s authors in the UAE…
The art of writing…
How can budding authors polish their writing skills?
Julia Johnson: Before writing children’s books, I was teaching drama to children. Because of this background, I was asked to read stories on the radio, and I even had a little local television slot; a five-minute bedtime story session. This background gave me a good grounding to become an author, because one of the most important things you can do to be a good writer is read.
The more you read, the more you take in what you like (and don’t like) about a book. It develops your critical faculties, enriches your vocabulary, and gets you thinking.
Know your purpose…
Ebtisam Al Beiti: Before you write your story, think about what it’s for. After all, a book can have so many purposes.
I recently met the author of a book for children going through cancer treatment. She had faced this personally in her own family and felt that the subject was often treated as a taboo. She was not interested at all in gaining widespread attention, her aim was to create something that would provide comfort and support to others. Families picked it up in hospital waiting rooms and used it to start hard conversations with their children. She had a clear purpose in writing this book, which she achieved, and in that sense the book was a great success.
Purpose is important. Are you launching a writing career for yourself? Are you creating a keepsake for family or friends? Is it an educational tool? Having a clear concept of this will help to keep you on track.
A Bright idea…
Julia Johnson: It’s often said that you should write about what you know, and in some respects I do this, I write about characters that I can understand and relate to, but I also write about what fascinates me. I think that’s important, to write about what interests you, what creates a spark. I think also that if you’re writing, it’s quite important to find something new to say.
I wrote my first book, The Pearl Diver, because I was searching for a story I could use to create a children’s theatre piece, and I wanted to find something set locally. I’d been fascinated by pearl diving ever since I first saw an exhibition in the Dubai Museum in 1975. So I went to the shops, the libraries, the museums, and I couldn’t find a book for children. So I thought, well, I’ll write it myself.
Did I know much about pearl diving? Not really, but my husband read an article in the newspaper about an old man living in a senior citizens’ home in Al Mamzar, who had been a pearl diver in his youth. So, I went to meet him, with a friend’s son who spoke Arabic, and he told us the most wonderful stories. Listening to people is so important for writing.
Ebtisam Al Beiti: I always carry a little notebook with me, in my bag. Whenever I see something that interests me or something unusual, I write it down.
My second book, Citrus the Smoothie Sloth, came from a moment of pure inspiration. I was doing a storytelling event at The Green Planet and I learned that they had a sloth called Lemon. I thought wow, how fun! My brain started ticking and whirring, because of this fun unexpected name, and it immediately got me thinking about healthy eating, and my mind started racing. I made a note of it and from there, the book’s character developed.
From an idea to a story…
Julia Johnson: I usually start by getting an idea of who my hero is going to be. Who is this character? What do they want? What’s their objective? And then I build up the other characters around them.
You then have to make problems for your characters, and achieving their objective shouldn’t be too easy for them, it should involve some hard work. I like to think of the readers as detectives, they might get to the conclusion in their heads before they hero or heroine does, and I drop clues along the way, certainly with stories for older children.
Julia Johnson: It’s important to have trusted people around you to provide honest feedback. My husband is often the first person to read my work, and my son reads it with a fine tooth comb and corrects everything, he’s very meticulous, which is useful.
Ebtisam Al Beiti: I always start with close family and friends, the people who will want you to succeed. Yes, they are likely quite biased, but that can be helpful initially, as you develop confidence in your work. Once I feel more confident, I reveal my work to someone a little more expert and critical, with experience in writing or editing.
Finding a publisher…
Julia Johnson: Do you research, look at books that you feel your story falls into the same category and make a note of who the publisher is. Your book doesn’t have to be published here in the UAE, although there are advantages to having a publisher who knows the local market. If you can get it published in UK or the states, that’s even better in some respects.
Ebtisam Al Beiti: Major publishing houses, and even some smaller ones, won’t even consider a manuscript of a children’s book if the author is too shy to do readings or events. If you cannot get out there and promote your writing, you will not be published. Gone are the days where authors can be anonymous, you are unlikely to be considered if you’re not confident enough to hold an engaging session. You are your brand.
In my personal experience, being published in the UAE, it’s been a very, very exciting journey. A lot of opportunities have opened up and I’ve had a lot of support from the local scene.
Being an author…
Ebtisam Al Beiti: Unless you are already a well-known figure, like David Walliams, or the Princess of Wales, you’re very unlikely to make significant amounts of money from writing books. Don’t do it seeking fame and fortune, do it for the experience, do it for the enjoyment, do it for yourself.
Julia Johnson: Definitely don’t do it for financial gain. I think that’s one of the off-putting things, that most authors don’t sell more than a few thousand books. For me, it’s been more of an experience and source of excitement, a lovely ride if you like.
Ebtisam Al Beiti: For me, writing allowed me to discover a different path for myself, to explore what I can do. It has been a journey of personal development, and it has changed me in so many ways. It has helped me to become so confident in myself, to believe in what I can achieve.
If you’ve got a story to tell, write it, not for the potential of success, just do it for you. You may find that so many other doors start opening for you.