Being new to the UAE can feel like being a duck out of water. That’s why academic Franziska Apprich, 35, felt a duckling would be the perfect hero for her first children’s story, about setting up a new life in Dubai.
Batbut in Dubai (Batbut, pronounced batboot, is Arabic for duckling) was written by Apprich, dean of the School of Communication and Media Studies and School of Environment and Health Sciences at the Canadian University Dubai, in collaboration with her colleague Kathy O'Sullivan, who is executive director of student affairs.
“I was on a lunch break one day with nothing to do and I started to draw a duckling,” says the German-Swiss-Italian Apprich. “My father’s nickname for my mum is ‘small duck’ and ducks have always been something cute and loveable to me. That’s how Batbut began. Like me, he is an outsider with a good heart.
“Batbut tries to fly but is a little too fat and is bullied by a beautiful swan, who tells him he will never get to see the big things in life.”
Encouraged by his friends, Batbut embarks on an enchanting adventure in search of the biggest worms, which he has heard are to be found in the desert, and ends up in Dubai.
“All expats feel lost when they first arrive in Dubai. That’s certainly how I felt. But we can learn so much from Dubai – to welcome all nationalities and to grow together. The book is about not being afraid to be the outsider. I think the theme will really resonate with expat children.”
Batbut dives head first into Dubai’s expat lifestyle, even experiencing a Friday brunch. In Apprich’s original story, Batbut also tries smoking shisha. “I didn’t know that was a bad thing, but a couple of kids I read it to said: ‘Wow, the duck is really cute but he’s a bad duck because he’s smoking shisha.’ So we had to amend that.”
Batbut ends up partnering with one of his new-found friends to open a business selling camel milk, gets married and has lots of little ducks of his own. “Children learn that being the ugly duckling doesn’t mean you can’t reach for the stars.”
Apprich was determined to have her tale published in Arabic as well as English. “I was babysitting one night for three girls who had lots of books, but none in English and Arabic. Kids here learn Arabic at school and it was important to me to cover both languages.”
Batbut was written in a week, but it took Apprich and O'Sullivan six years to get the Arabic translation right. "I had three Arabic professors working on it, but they couldn't agree which language to use. I brought it to a professional translator and she made sure it rhymed and flowed in the best way possible."
As well as illustrating the book, Apprich also designed a line of cuddly ducks, complete with ghutras. Three hundred of the 2,000 Batbut toys produced were sent to children in Syria “to spread hope and companionship”.
And one lucky duck got to share the stage with Grammy Award-winning singer Sinead O’Connor when she performed at Dubai’s Irish Village in January.
“I threw Batbut at Sinead, who picked him up and put him on the piano,” says Apprich. “She didn’t say anything but smiled, which is rare for her.”
Batbut is not the first book that Apprich and O'Sullivan have collaborated on. Two years ago, they released Women Hate Women – Stop B****ing, a humorous take on the female tendency to put down other women. Apprich has also directed two award-winning films – The Cat (2005) and Out of Tune (2009).
So what do Apprich’s students make of her latest project?
"I read Batbut to them and they loved it. I think they were happy one of their professors could have something creative going on in their lives. Some were encouraged to orchestrate something creative for their own kids."
• Batbut in Dubai (Sky Horizons) is available in bookshops for Dh45 (includes the Batbut toy)