Dorothy's List: Teen Navigates Life Without Arms In 'Insignificant Events In The Life Of A Cactus'

Jan 2, 2019

Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you had no arms? How would you eat? Or write? Or turn the pages of a book? Those are some of the everyday challenges facing 13-year-old Aven Green, the main character in Dusti Bowling’s novel Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus.

A group of Dorothy’s List readers at Castleton Village School spent a recent afternoon discussing the novel. The book was eye-opening for Castleton seventh-grader Rosalie Bates.

“She uses her feet a lot to write and eat," Rosalie said about Aven. "And she just does a lot of things with her feet, and I thought that was interesting because that’s how people with no arms do things. And I didn’t know that.”

To get a feel for what that might be like, Castleton Village School media and literacy teacher Tina Rampone has given this group of Dorothy’s List readers a challenge: Try to pass your friend a lifesaver candy using only a straw.

It’s not as easy as you might think — but it might not be a very big deal for Aven. She was born with no arms, so she’s just learned how to do everyday things differently. And she lets readers know that, right from the beginning of the book.

Jade Traverse, left, and Brian Lenox work on passing a lifesaver to each other using straws and not their hands. The challenge was in conjunction with their discussion of the book "The Insignificant Event in the Life of a Cactus," about a teen with no arms who completes many everyday tasks using her feet.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR

“She had a lot of grit and determination,” said Castleton sixth-grader Brian Lenox, about the book's main character.

In addition to liking Aven's personality, there was one aspect of the book that made Brian especially curious.

Brian Lenox: "Why did you choose the title Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus?"

Dusti Bowling: “Well, actually Brian, it’s interesting — but a lot of times when your book gets sold to a publisher, they change the title. So I actually did not choose this title. It was not my original title.

"My editor actually picked the title, and she created it from a line that Aven says in chapter eight, when she says: ‘I am an entirely insignificant event in the life of this cactus.’ She really liked that scene and she liked the meaning behind the line, and what Aven was feeling at that moment. And that’s how the title came about.”

And another sixth-grade student had this question for the author about if the book had real-life inspiration.

Jade Traverse: “Do you know someone with this handicap?"

Dusti Bowling: “I actually did not when I first started thinking about this story. It came to me after I saw a video of a woman named Barbie Thomas. It was a really, really old video of her from about 20 or so years ago. And I saw this video and it was just her folding towels and doing all of these things – changing her baby’s diaper. And she was doing everything with her feet because she didn’t have arms. And I just could not stop thinking about her. It was very eye-opening to me. But I didn’t know her at that time.”

Dusti Bowling, author of "Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus," at the KJZZ studio in Arizona to answer Castleton Village School students' questions about the novel.
Credit Courtesy

However, that changed when Bowling decided to write this book.  

Dusti Bowling: “When I did finally make the decision, after a few years, to sit down and write this character – because I could not stop thinking about this character – I actually reached out to Barbie Thomas. I found her, and it turns out she lived right here in my city, where I live. And so it was so amazing to find that out and to get to connect with her and become friends with her.

"And, actually I now know several armless people through the writing of this story, because I shared the manuscript with them to make sure that it was authentic and realistic. And so I do have a few armless friends now, which is really special to me.”

And a Castleton sixth-grader also asked:

Leah Reynolds: “Where did you get the inspiration for this book?"

While watching that video of Barbie Thomas was Bowling’s primary inspiration, the author said she went on to meet other inspiring people as she was working on the book.

Dusti Bowling: “Other people who inspired me … were Tisha Shelton who does a series online called Tisha UnArmed. I studied all of her videos while I was creating this character because I wanted this character to be as authentic as possible. And Tisha’s videos were so helpful. She shows you how she does everything without arms, from like carving a pumpkin to getting dressed and making a sandwich.

Watch one of Tisha's videos below:

Dusti Bowling: "And then another person who inspired me was Jessica Cox, who lives here in Arizona, where I do. She is actually the world’s first armless pilot. She flies a plane with her feet. … I’ve amazingly gotten to meet all these women in person, connect with them, share my manuscript with them, which has been just such a great experience for me.”

A seventh-grade student wanted to know Bowling’s biggest takeaway from her research.

Castleton Village School seventh-grader Rosalie Bates said Dusti Bowling's book "Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus" was eye-opening and wanted to know about the author's inspirations for the novel.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR

Rosalie Bates: “What was your most important thing about learning things from people with no arms?”

Dusti Bowling: “Oh, that is a really good question. I think the most important thing I learned throughout the process of writing this story was that it wasn’t just so much about capturing like how they do things without arms. But it was like the emotional aspect of it – how they feel about it. …

"I really wanted my book to be enjoyable for people with these disabilities, not just people without these disabilities. And so, just the emotional aspect and the impact that this book might have on people with these disabilities was incredibly important to me and something I really needed to consider the whole time I was writing it.”

"I really wanted my book to be enjoyable for people with these disabilities, not just people without these disabilities. ... The emotional aspect and the impact that this book might have on people with these disabilities was incredibly important to me and something I really needed to consider the whole time I was writing it." — Dusti Bowling

In Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, Aven moves from her lifelong home in Kansas to Arizona, when her parents take a job running a rundown Wild West theme park called Stagecoach Pass.

Sixth-grader Jade Traverse said she could relate with Aven’s struggles to fit in in a new place.

“I’ve moved from here to Rutland and to Florida, then Connecticut, and then back," Jade said about her experience. "And all those different places, they didn’t feel like home, where all my other friends were. But in Connecticut, I was there for about three years so it felt like home. But when I had to move back I was upset – like I did having to move from here.”

Like Jade, Aven does eventually make friends. Her first and best friend is a boy named Connor, who has trouble fitting in due to his own disability – a neurological disorder called Tourette syndrome that causes involuntary tics. One of Connor's tics is that he occasionally barks like a dog.

Leah Reynolds, left, and Jade Traverse sit to discuss Dusti Bowling's "Insignificant Events In The Life of a Cactus." In the book, main character Aven moves to a new state, and Jade talked about her own experiences moving with "Dorothy's List."
Credit Meg Malone / VPR

Together Aven and Connor explore the nooks and crannies of Stagecoach Pass, and before long they stumble on a mystery that changes Aven’s life yet again.

It’s an exciting story, and it left Castleton student Leah Reynolds wondering about what may be next.

Leah Reynolds: “Are you thinking about writing a sequel?”

Dusti Bowling: “Oh, I’m so glad you asked that because I do have a sequel coming out in September of 2019. And it is called Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus, and I am super excited to share it with all of you. I think if you like the first book, you’re really going to like the second book.

"It’s, again, told from Aven’s perspective and it is just about the very, very start of her high school and she is learning how to ride a horse, because Stagecoach Pass is having its first horse show in many, many years.

"She has a crush on somebody. She’s going to Comic-Con with her friend Zion and his family. And somebody does something really mean to her and everything in her life sort of starts to unravel. So, it’s a fun story and there’s a lot happening and I think you guys will like it.”

In the meantime, these Castleton Village School students are going to brush up on their skills, trying to navigate the world without arms. But first, they’re mastering the art of passing a Lifesaver.

Rosalie Bates, left, and Brian Lenox successfully transfer a Lifesaver using just straws during a challenge at Castleton Village School.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR

Special thanks to Castleton Village School media and literacy teacher Tina Rampone. Next month we’re reading Refugee by last year’s Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award-winner Alan Gratz, a novel that tells three stories of kids who must escape their home countries. Find more Dorothy's List episodes here.