November 23, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Chatting with Dusti Bowling, Author of “Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus”

In Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (Sterling; 2017), which recently garnered an SLJ star review, protagonist Aven Green moves from Kansas to Arizona when her dad takes a job as the manager of the Stagecoach Pass theme park. Moving to a new place is challenging for any kid; for Aven, it comes with the added weight of having to explain her, as she puts it, “lack of armage.” Aven was born without arms and navigates everyday tasks using her feet. We recently spoke with Bowling about her inspiration for the story, how she worked with sensitivity readers, and her deep love for the natural environment of the American Southwest.

Aven was born without arms, and this is a major focus of the book and a great addition to books describing children facing physical challenges. What was your research process for telling Aven’s story with as much accuracy and authenticity as you did?

I’ll have to go back a little to what inspired me to create Aven in the first place. Several years ago, I saw a video of a woman taking care of her baby, driving, and working out. She didn’t have arms and did everything with her feet. I thought about her a long time afterward until Aven started to form in my mind. When I decided to finally write this story, I found there wasn’t a whole lot written specifically about people without arms, but there were some really great videos online. I found a woman on YouTube who goes by Tisha Unarmed and makes interesting videos about how she does everyday things without arms. The more I watched Tisha’s videos, the more I realized just how capable Aven would be. After writing my story, I reached out to Tisha and asked her if she would be willing to read my manuscript for authenticity. I was so relieved she loved the story. Then a little while later, I found out, through some pretty wild coincidence, that the woman in the original video I saw was Barbie Thomas, an armless bodybuilder who lived right in my own city. I reached out to her and she also agreed to read my story. I’m thrilled to say that she loved it as well. I think the only way I could have possibly ensured the authenticity of this story was through these important sensitivity readings. Having Tisha’s and Barbie’s support really gave me the confidence to share this story with the world.

Your previous books were aimed at a more teen audience. What was it about Aven’s story that made you choose a middle grade voice?

The more I thought about who Aven was and what I wanted her storyline to be, the more I felt this book would be most beneficial to a middle grade audience. Something about Aven’s personality just made me fall into this naturally humorous middle grade voice that I don’t think would work as well for a YA novel. As I wrote the story, I realized everything about it suited a middle grade audience best: the silly humor, the issues Aven was dealing with, the way the characters behaved, the clean content (not at all edgy or dealing with darker themes), the quirky setting. I loved writing in this slightly younger voice.

The “default setting” for middle grade seems to be the Midwest, with New York and California settings being the expected “exciting” setting. The Arizona setting adds so much to your book. What factors do you think really define the U.S. Southwest?

Author Dusti Bowling as a young reader. Photo credit: Dusti Bowling.

I love the Southwest. I was born and raised in Arizona. I moved away as an adult for several years, but I couldn’t wait to come back. I think one of the things that defines the Southwest (and Arizona more specifically) is the amazing landscape you can only find here. Arizona must have the most diverse array of landscapes in the U.S. of any state, from the Sonoran Desert to the red rocks of Sedona to the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, and many gorgeous canyons (I could go on and on). You can be in a hundred degree desert, then drive a half hour and be in the cool pines of Mt. Lemmon or Flagstaff. I’ve heard people refer to the “brown Southwest” or the “barren Southwest,” but the Southwest is anything but barren, especially when you consider the unique wildlife that lives here. I’ve met so many people who assume nothing lives in the desert (except rattlesnakes and scorpions), but the desert is absolutely teeming with life. In my yard alone, we have adorable quail families, roadrunners, cardinals, hummingbirds, rabbits, several species of snakes and lizards, kangaroo mice, javelina, deer, and even a bobcat who comes around regularly. We did once have a rattlesnake, and we do find scorpions frequently, so those are definitely out there, too. And of course, the Southwest wouldn’t be the Southwest without the Mexican and Native American cultures that have strongly influenced everything around us: food, clothing, architecture, and festivals. The Heard Museum in Phoenix is easily one of the greatest Native American museums in the U.S. and worth a visit to Arizona alone. I’ve been all over this continent and Europe, and there is nowhere like the Southwest.

Aven’s best friend has Tourette Syndrome. Depicting a Tourette support group was a great way to show that there are a lot of different manifestations of this syndrome. What do you hope readers take away from your depiction?

There are a lot of misconceptions about Tourette syndrome, most especially that it is all about people shouting cuss words. I actually included a child at the support meetings whose Tourette’s manifests itself in this way (though he shouts words that aren’t profane), so that people who read this book would understand that that form of Tourette’s does in fact exist, but it is rare (and it’s not even always cuss words the person says). I hope readers understand from reading this book that Tourette’s is not something a person can control, that they are not doing it for attention, and that it can be extremely embarrassing and painful. I hope they take away empathy and the desire to reach out to fellow classmates with tic disorders, to let them know that Hey, it’s okay. We know you can’t help it.

Who were you as a middle grade reader? What were some of your favorite books?

I was a very introverted middle grade reader. I discovered my love of middle grade books around third grade, when I was going through some difficult times in my childhood (including my parents divorcing). I lost myself in these stories. Books were my friends, my family, my entertainment, my therapy. They were everything to me during that time. I must have read two to three books daily from third grade until sixth grade. I was never seen without a book in my hand and often got in trouble for reading during class. I read through all of the “Babysitter’s Club,” “Sweet Valley High,” and “Nancy Drew.” But I’ll never forget how Where the Red Fern Grows made me cry my eyes out. I think it was the first book to make me cry, and it was very cathartic. I don’t know what I would have done during that time in my life if I hadn’t had books.

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Karen Yingling About Karen Yingling

Karen Yingling is a middle school librarian from the Midwest. She blogs about and reviews children’s literature at msyinglingreads.blogspot.com.

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Comments

  1. We have a girl in our community who had cancer as an infant and is living with one arm missing – when I saw this book, I immediately ordered it for her! :) Hopefully she loves it – this sounds like such a good book.

  2. Helen Casserly says:

    Hello Dusti,
    I would love to arrange a Skype visit/conversation between you & a class of our Wonderful 4th/5th graders @ Longridge Elementary school, Greece, New York. Our school follows the ‘Leader in Me’ curriculum & philosophy. I have one or two ‘particular’ teachers in mind who are ‘shining lights’ within our School for embracing & celebrating diversity. I have introduced ‘Insignificant Events In the Life of a Cactus’ to their students. The students would be so excited & empowered to discuss their thoughts & wonderings with the ‘actual’ author!
    I would love to schedule a date in December 2017 with you.
    Yours ‘hopefully’
    Helen Casserly
    Intermediate Reading Specialist

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