Dubai-based author on her children's book series themed around expat life

Giselle Onanian is the author of the 'Alfie & Oak' series.


Enid Grace Parker

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Published: Tue 26 Jul 2022, 1:43 PM

Last updated: Sun 31 Jul 2022, 11:29 AM

Author Giselle Onanian considers herself fortunate to have grown up in a multi-cultural city like Dubai and as an expat mother, wanted to tell stories that would resonate with expat children and parents from not only the UAE but around the world.

Raised in Dubai since 1993, England-born Giselle, who works as a copywriter and creative producer, was inspired to write a book while reading for her son during the lockdown.

And so, inspired much by Giselle’s own life in Dubai, the 'Alfie & Oak' book series was born, featuring a third-culture child - Alfie - a curious little boy who grows up in an expat environment and learns more about the world around him with the help of his dog, Oak.

The first book in the series, 'Alfie & Oak: Daddy has got a new job', was published in February 2022. Recently, Giselle put out a second, 'Alfie & Oak: Can we go and see Nana?'

In the rhyming story that is wonderful to read out loud, Alfie, who is very close to his grandmother, wonders why he can’t meet her whenever he wants to - and has to travel halfway around the world just to get a hug. Giselle calls her books “the perfect conversation starters” between parents and children who are on an expat journey together.

A third book in the series 'Alfie & Oak: Where did my friend go?' is scheduled for release in October.

City Times caught up with Giselle for chat.

Your book series Alfie & Oak features a third culture kid who grows up in a country that isn’t his own. How reflective is this series of your real life?

Almost 100%. Each book touches upon something I personally experienced as a third culture kid - we moved as my dad got a new job with the airline, we lived away from (and very much missed) family, and over the summer each year, friends and their families did leave.

Now raising two little ones of my own, they will experience the same, as will most expat children, as this is all part and parcel of living abroad.

When did your interest in writing start and how did the idea for the book series first come to you?

I have always been a 'creative', writing everything from short stories, witty verses, the odd rhyme and through work, creative brand strategies and business proposals. While reading books for my son during the lockdown, I thought, 'why not write my own?'

I did a bit of research, not wanting to do something already done and seeing that there were no books for expat children, I just started writing... and I couldn't stop.

As an expat mum, what are some of the challenges and rewards of bringing up kids in a new country?

For us, the rewards outweigh the challenges. I love the exposure to different backgrounds, cultures, and languages and having a lifestyle that we wouldn't find elsewhere (not in one place anyway!) with a multitude of things to do for all ages. As a kid, I had the best time here and am happy I can give my son the same.

Here, we are also quite central to the world, so it is easy to get out and explore other places. The challenges are the 'bubble' effect, facing the realities of things that are sometimes hidden here, or seen through rose-coloured glasses, so it's making sure feet are kept on the ground, being aware of (but not scared of) the dangers and treating those around us with kindness and compassion.

You’ve lived in the UAE since the early '90s. How did the multiculturalism here influence your personal and professional life?

I am definitely more open-minded to others and feel I am worldly. I grew up surrounded by friends of all different cultural backgrounds and nationalities, which definitely enriched my life and views.

Giselle pictured at school in Dubai in an old photograph.
Giselle pictured at school in Dubai in an old photograph.

As someone who grew up here, how do you feel the UAE has evolved since the 90s, in the fields of arts and culture?

It has strengthened - for sure. There is more support and facility to create it and greater opportunity for exposure and access to it. There is a strong community of arts and culture creatives and smaller communities by style or medium. It is easier now to create and share.

What is your writing routine? Do you have a day job as well or are you focused on writing now?

I am a copywriter and creative producer by day, a mum at night, and a children's author in between. Essentially, a stay-at-home, work-from-home mum! Working independently, I write for various creative agencies, brands and government agencies, conceptualising creative brand strategies and writing press releases and keynote speeches.

Each day is different and as someone who can't sit still, I love it. To write, I need noise; I need something happening in the background, so usually, I get to work with a Netflix series on and plug away. Inspiration, and the writing spark, can take five minutes or five days to come, so I'm grateful that I can work around the books and my children, as it isn't always a smooth and easy process!

Giselle's son Frankie on whom the character Alfie is based, with his grandmother
Giselle's son Frankie on whom the character Alfie is based, with his grandmother

What can you tell us about the latest book in your series, 'Alfie & Oak: Can we go and see Nana?'

The majority of us here as expats are living away from family. Whether it is grandparents, parents, siblings, aunties, uncles etc., we all have family we wish to see at the drop of a hat, but we can't. In the second book, Alfie wants to see his Nana 'now', but his mum explains that it isn't easy as ‘there's half a world between us’.

He tells us all the wonderful things he and his Nana will do, the news he has to share with her and the games they will play. For the readers and their parents, this may be a familiar conversation and hopefully a great conversation starter to bridge that gap between their little ones seeing their beloved grandparents and not.

Children’s literature is ever-expanding and caters to every kind of imagination. What in your opinion makes your books special and why do you feel children would be drawn to them?

I wanted books that children could see themselves in, relate to, feel represented and importantly, have topics that could become conversation starters between themselves and their parents. From talking to little ones at my readings around town, I can see that they can connect with the stories as they have experienced them in real life.

We talk about why they moved here and what they love most about their home from home, and they're so animated and engaged because of the direct connection to Alfie, and I love that.

Who were some of your favourite authors growing up and why?

My mum always reminds me that I used to consume books as a child, always taking 3 or 4 with me to bed at night to read. But as I grew up, honestly, I put down the books in favour of TV or playing outside. In my teens, I picked it back up, opting for murder mysteries, crimes and thrillers from Agatha Christie, John Grisham and James Patterson.

Having had children, I have found a love for children's books again. Our shelves are stacked with adventurous Oliver Jeffers, the rhyming whimsy of Julia Donaldson, the simplicity of Ross Collins and the beautifully illustrated Benji Davies.

Did the pandemic change your attitude towards life as an expat? What are some of your personal takeaways from this experience?

Not really, Dubai is home, and throughout the pandemic, I felt safe, secure and well informed. I think the UAE handled the uncertainties and assurances very well. One thing I did find challenging was the distance from immediate family, only being able to make sure they were okay from afar, and of course, not being able to travel to see them.

With young children too, there are years of their growth and milestone moments missed by grandparents, aunties and uncles that we will never get back. Now, I have more appreciation of time and how my time is spent.

What are your thoughts on reading habits among kids now especially in the digital age where their attention is easily swayed by gadgets and television? Is it more difficult to get them to read books?

I think it is all about how books are included into their daily lives - enjoying them together, spending that quality time reading together. For us at home, reading is very much part of the bedtime routine, so my son has grown to look forward to reading, discovering new books and much-loved characters and flipping through the pages.

That being said, some modern classics from Julia Donaldson and Oliver Jeffers are being made into animated shorts with the BBC and AppleTV+ which brings the books to life which are lovely to watch, so it is about balance and what they are watching.

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