The 13-year-old protagonist of Bowling's first traditionally published novel, Aven Green, is so fed up with explaining how she lost her arms that she offers a different story each time anybody asks— the more gross and outlandish, the better. The truth is that Aven was born without arms due to a rare genetic condition. But her identity is much more than her disability; Bowling's novel is a sensitive and fresh middle grade book ultimately about a girl adjusting to new circumstances.
Aven's story begins with her family's move to Arizona, where her father has been hired to manage a run-down Western-themed park named Stagecoach Pass. As the unusual setting—and the title—might suggest, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is filled with humor. Bowling says, "There are so many serious books dealing with disabilities. I wanted this story to be fun, not heart-wrenching. Well, maybe it's a tiny bit heart-wrenching at times."
Bowling (who previously self-published the YA novel The Day We Met) began thinking about those who—whether from genetic causes or accidents—live without limbs after her cousin was injured in Iraq. He had lost his eye and was going to lose his arm. Wanting to understand his new perspective, she began researching life with missing limbs. Her cousin passed away shortly after being injured, and she didn't think about limb differences again until years later when she happened upon a video of a young Barbie Thomas (who would later go on to become an armless bodybuilder): "At that moment, it no longer felt painful to think about people with limb differences. It felt important," Bowling says.
As she began to appreciate how much most people take for granted, Aven also fully took shape: "I knew I wanted her to have a positive attitude. I didn't want anyone to pity her because of her disability or find inspiration at her expense. I also didn't want her disability to be negative or something she had to overcome. If Aven needed to overcome anything, it was these major changes in her life, and dealing with other people's perceptions and reactions."
The book communicates how having a physical difference means constantly navigating other people's discomfort. "It's only when people try to expand their viewpoints that they can begin to embrace differences instead of feeling uncomfortable about them," Bowling says. Especially cognizant of her limitations in writing from Aven's perspective, she contacted a woman whose online videos had helped foster her awareness: "Tisha of Tisha Unarmed taught me so much through her videos that I decided to contact her after writing my story. She graciously agreed to do a sensitivity reading for me."
The novel includes other characters with differences—notably Aven's friend Connor, who has Tourette's syndrome. Bowling's research into the lives of people with Tourette's syndrome began close to home: her husband and children have related disorders. As she learned more about Tourette's syndrome, she became aware of many stereotypes that she wants replaced with more nuanced understandings. "I hope I've done my part to help spread awareness about the realities of Tourette's syndrome.
It's not just about people shouting cuss words, which only about five percent of people with TS actually do," she says.
For readers who may have limb differences, tic disorders, or Tourette's syndrome, Bowling hopes that they might feel validated by seeing an aspect of themselves represented. "When you can't find books that reflect your life experiences, it's like saying you're not worth writing about," she says. Both Aven and Connor offer readers a chance to get to know characters whose disabilities are merely one facet of their identities. Bowling has already heard from readers who tell her that the book has helped them see disabilities in new and different ways. She says, "If empathy and inclusiveness are what people take away from my story, then I don't think I could ask for more than that."