When Katie Butterfield and Khadija Kudsi met at an Abu Dhabi Mums meeting eight years ago, they had no idea they would produce a children's book that would become part of the city's school library collections. But that is what they have done.
Noura's Garden, published with support from the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), is being introduced in selected schools as part of the Sayfuna Mumayaz summer reading programme. Noura, the little girl in the story, lives in Abu Dhabi. Through the brightly coloured pages, illustrated by another Abu Dhabi-based mother, Ruth Burrows, Noura explores the capital's parks with members of her family. The text appears in English, French and Arabic and is aimed at children who are just starting to read.
Butterfield, Burrows and Kudsi felt that the reading material available in schools did not reflect their children's experiences of growing up in Abu Dhabi or their multilingual requirements, so they set out to change that. "We've all invested a lot of our lives here and we wanted to celebrate something about the place in a positive way," says Butterfield. The book is not only based, written and illustrated in Abu Dhabi but also printed locally by Grafik International.
Butterfield is careful to point out that Noura's Garden has not been written by "outsiders". "I have lived here for nine and a half years," she says. "I could have written this eight years ago but it wouldn't have been the same." Before becoming a mother, she was the assistant regional marketing educational manager for the British Council, covering large parts of the Gulf region. After the birth of her daughter, now eight, and son, four, she became involved in Abu Dhabi Mums and the St Andrew's Church playgroup. She has written several poems, songs and stories, including 10 more Noura stories.
The women's teamwork was a crucial part in Noura's Garden, explains Butterfield, as Burrows's and Kudsi's insights helped form the book. Burrows, a graphic artist whose background is in theatre design, owns and manages Hemisphere Gallery in Abu Dhabi, a hub for UAE-based artists and designers. She says that book illustration was a natural progression for her. "In theatre design you take a script, then you create an environment; you create the characters and the costumes. So illustrating a story is not too far away from that." She has lived in the UAE for 12 years and was inspired by her family.
"I am married to an Arab who has been here for a long time and all his sisters are married to Emiratis. So, although I am British, I'm immersed in UAE culture. My in-laws are my source material." For Butterfield and Kudsi, producing the book marked the first step in doing something outside their roles as mothers. "We were just talking about what we would like to do, or could do, while being devoted mothers," says Butterfield. "Khadija and I very quickly discovered we had a passion for books."
Noura's Garden was the ideal project for them as they could balance the project with their parenting duties and their kids could understand what they were doing. Kudsi, who was raised in Saudi Arabia but has lived in the UAE for 10 years, has three children aged eight, four and two. She studied for a degree in management information systems but decided she really wanted to do something creative. "I am very proud of this project because my kids can relate to it. They open it, they see my picture and they enjoy the book. So my work is part of their enjoyment," she says.
Kudsi's role, as well as to provide the Arabic translation, was to offer cultural advice. Born in Syria and married to an Emirati, she ran ideas past her Emirati friends. "Katie sent me a draft and I looked at it with my friends," Kudsi says. "We would work on the names and the structure of the story and edit it a bit to fit the culture. We wanted to respect the culture, to uphold the heritage and its aspects, but at the same time show the UAE as a modern place."
"We are all trying to balance our commitment to our family as well as doing something else that is worthwhile," says Butterfield. The first priority was to provide a useful educational book rather than aiming to be hugely popular authors. Kudsi adds: "I was really proud we went to ADEC, that the first thing we've done is an educational project. We don't want to be strictly commercial. We are very keen about our children's education."
The story of Noura's Garden is easy for young readers to follow. For each language in the text there is a colourful reading prompt - Barnaby Bee for the English, Farah the Butterfly for the Arabic or Eric the Snail for the French translation, which was done by Jacqueline Craig. Butterfield says she wanted to reflect the sense of wonder and enjoyment children can experience from the simplest things. "We take it for granted that we go to the park as part of our childhood, but if you ask people what they remember, it is going on the swings with Grandma or having picnics."
The book's descriptions of parks and the activities they have on offer will be familiar to Abu Dhabi residents. Noura goes to the ladies park to play on the swings with her grandmother. She slides down the inflatable slides at the Khalidiya Children's Park and plays football with her brothers in Mushrif Helipad Park. The women's children - there are six among them - have all been involved in the project, too, either directly or indirectly. For example, a cat, Percy, is hidden in the pictures on each page. Burrows's seven-year-old daughter, Reem, named Percy and got to see the illustrations before the book went to print. "I run everything by Reem because she's honest," Burrows says.
In addition to creating UAE-based children's literature, the makers of Noura's Garden were keen to produce a book that would cater to the large number of children who grow up learning more than one language. They used their experiences to help them. Butterfield is bringing up her children to be bilingual in English and French. Kudsi's children speak English and Arabic. "At the French school, most of the children are learning at least two, if not three, languages," says Butterfield. "Unlike in England or America, that is common here."
Kudsi's son has enjoyed using the book to practise his English. "It is laid out very easily," she says. "My son can see that marhaba means hello from the layout." Another aspect of life the book addresses is the different family structures in the UAE. Butterfield says she has had some positive feedback from teachers in Government schools. "When they are doing a subject on the family all the pictures are of European or American families." In Noura's Garden we are introduced to Grandma Fatimah; Aunt Salama and her twins, Khaled and Khalifa; Noura's sister, Amna; and her brothers, Hamad and Zayed. We also meet Noura's best friend, Khadija, who is from Saudi Arabia.
With the support of Dr Robert Thompson, the head of external relations and special projects at ADEC, there is an initial run of 400 books. It will be piloted at three schools in Abu Dhabi, and Butterfield, Kudsi and Burrows are working with the teachers there to see how to best use it as a teaching tool. There is also a website, www.mynourabooks.com, which will have downloadable flashcards, worksheets, art and crafts ideas and games.
"It's been a bit like having a baby," says Butterfield. "The process of getting the book printed was exactly like being pregnant: very exciting but lots of bits that are nerve-racking, and there is lots to do. And now it's here ... you realise that the work has only just begun." The long-term hope is that Noura's Garden will be found in the school libraries of all Abu Dhabi's Cycle 1 Schools.