Empathy and Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus: An Interview with Dusti Bowling by Donna Gephart
One of the superpowers of books is helping readers grow their empathy skills.
While all books invite you to walk in someone else’s shoes, certain ones accomplish that on a grand scale, like Dusti Bowling’s Insignifcant Events in the Life of a Cactus. I relished my time spent in the flowered ballet flats of Aven Green, a confident middle school girl who has to navigate a move to a new place — Stagecoach Pass, a rundown Western theme park in Arizona – without arms.
Being born without arms requires Aven to find different and sometimes more difficult ways of doing things, but she has supportive parents who always encourage her to manage things for herself. Aven befriends Connor, a boy who has significantly less confidence as he navigates life with physical and verbal tics from Tourette syndrome.
Together, they try to puzzle out a mystery at the theme park.
I found myself thinking about the book when I was away from it. I wondered what it felt like to be Aven or Connor as I went through my days. This novel evoked a tremendous amount of empathy, and I can’t wait to share it with young readers.
I’m delighted that author Dusti Bowling graciously answered a few questions for us about her debut novel, which has received multiple starred reviews.
- What inspired you to write INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS?
The idea to write a story featuring a character with a limb difference was planted in my mind nearly a decade ago when I received a phone call about my cousin, Kyle, who was serving in Iraq. His vehicle had been hit by an RPG. He was severely injured. He was in a coma and had lost his eye. He was going to lose his arm.
Over the next couple of weeks, I thought a lot about what life would be like for Kyle with a missing arm. I tried to read as much as I could about life with missing limbs, and I discovered there were very few children’s books featuring characters with limb differences. Actually, at the time, I couldn’t find any. I thought this was incredibly sad for the many children with limb differences, as everyone should be able to find stories that mirror their life experiences.
But Kyle passed away two weeks after he was injured, and I didn’t think about the lack of children’s literature featuring characters with limb differences again until several years later when I saw a video online of a woman taking care of her baby and working out at the gym. She didn’t have arms and did everything with her feet. It was incredibly eye-opening to me. This woman showed me that not having arms didn’t hold her back from doing what she wanted in life. She showed me how determined, adaptive, and resilient people can be, and I thought about her a lot until the character of Aven started to form in my mind.
I was inspired to write a character with Tourette syndrome because my husband and two of my daughters have tic disorders. Unfortunately, the representation of Tourette syndrome in books and movies has mostly been stereotypical and over-the-top. Usually it’s portrayed as people shouting cuss words, which is rare. This has led to a lack of understanding about Tourette syndrome, which causes much distress for children with tic disorders. I know my own daughters feel highly stressed when people tell them to stop fidgeting, stop making loud throat-clearing sounds, stop making faces. And when my youngest tries to tell people she can’t help it because she has tics, they don’t understand what she means. When she tells them she has something like Tourette syndrome, they have flat-out told her, “No, you don’t. I know what that is. It’s the cussing disease.” Considering that as many as one in five children experience tics during their development, we desperately need better education and representation on the subject. I hope my story, combined with some other great stories that have recently come out like Ellie Terry’s Forget Me Not, helps to spread better awareness about Tourette syndrome.
- Tell us a bit about the research involved in writing this book.
Being armless is such a unique disability, I couldn’t find much to read on the experience. There are certainly books about limb differences, but I really wanted to gain as much information as I could about living specifically as an armless person. It isn’t anything like missing one arm or a leg or, like Nick Vujicic, missing both arms and legs. I read about as many armless people online as I could find, and I relied heavily on YouTube videos, particularly videos created by a woman who goes by Tisha Unarmed. Tisha demonstrates in her videos how she does everything without arms, from going through a drive-thru to putting on her bra to carving a pumpkin. Her videos were incredibly informative to me. 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 gave me the confidence to share this story with the world.
Writing about Tourette syndrome was a little bit simpler because of my experiences with my husband and daughters. Connor’s Tourette syndrome, however, is more severe than what my daughters are currently experiencing, so I relied on my husband’s memories from his childhood, when his tics were at their worst. I also read as much as I could and watched several documentaries about kids with Tourette syndrome. That combined with my daughters’ and husband’s own experiences helped me to understand as well as I could what it feels like for a child to have Tourette Syndrome.
- What do you hope readers will gain from reading your book?
There are a lot of children in this country with undiagnosed tic disorders because of the existing lack of awareness about it. Perhaps some of these kids will see their own struggles reflected in this book and ask for the support they need. I hope readers will 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.
Several people have told me that they’ve gained a new perspective about people with the disabilities portrayed in my book after having read it, that the discomfort they may have previously felt around people with limb differences or Tourette syndrome had changed into empathy and a desire to understand these people’s life experiences. Others have told me they were impacted by the message of inclusiveness in the book. So if empathy and inclusiveness are what people gain from reading my story, then I don’t think I could ask for more than that.
- What’s next for you?
I’m really excited about the middle grade novel I have coming out in 2018, also from Sterling Children’s Books. Though it’s an adventure story, its themes are similar to my first book’s: bravery, friendship, and inclusiveness. My new story was really the combining of a few different ideas I had been bouncing around in my mind for a while. One idea was to write a story about a kick-butt, tough-as-beef-jerky, motorcycle-racing girl. Another idea was to write a Goonies-like adventure that took place in the desert in realistic settings like Kartchner Caverns, Colossal Cave, and the many abandoned mines that litter the Arizona landscape. And the final idea was to tell a story inspired by my husband’s experiences growing up in poverty. I had a pretty big a-ha moment one day when I suddenly decided to put all three ideas together. And the result is 24 HOURS IN NOWHERE, an exciting adventure story told hour-by-hour over a day in the life of four kids. A story with an unusual setting and diverse characters that reflect the unique beauty of the state I love. Here is the description I wrote when pitching the idea for it to my agent:
In the poor desert town of Nowhere, Arizona, dirt bike racing is everything. And in a town where everything else is nothing, thirteen-year-old Gus is an undersized nobody who is about to get a mouthful of jumping cholla cactus, fed to him by Nowhere’s meanest bully.
Then, on the eve of the most important race of the summer, Rossi Scott, one of the best racers in Nowhere, steps in and saves Gus by trading her dirt bike for Gus’s wimpy life. Well, maybe not his life, but at least his mouth. And possibly other essential body parts.
Determined to get Rossi’s bike back, Gus makes a deal with the bully—go into Dead Frenchman Mine that night and bring back a piece of gold to buy it.
Gus knows everyone who’s gone into the mine in the last one hundred years has ended up dead. But Gus won’t be going in alone. And it will be a night that will change everything.
And who knows— a sequel for Aven isn’t totally out of the question J
Donna Gephart write humorous, heartfelt middle grade novels for Delacorte Press/Penguin Random House. Her latest novel Lily and Dunkin, about a transgender girl who tries to save a beloved tree and a boy with bipolar disorder who navigates a new school in a new town while dealing with a terrible secret, won the 2017 Southern Book Award in the juvenile category among other awards. Her brand new middle grade novel, In Your Shoes, comes out October 2018. Visit Donna at www.donnagephart.com to learn more.