Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus has been on my TBR pile for awhile. Featuring an 8th grade girl with no arms, Insignificant Events certainly is easy to booktalk. The rundown theme park her parents manage adds intrigue, as does Aven’s best friend’s Tourette Syndrome. I definitely liked certain aspects of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, but I’m not gushing over it.
AUTHOR: Dusti Bowling
SERIES: sequel: Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus
PUBLISHER: Union Square Kids
PUBLICATION DATE: September 5, 2017
GENRE: realistic fiction
SETTING: rundown themepark called Stagecoach Pass, Arizona, USA
GIVE IT TO: MS
AWARDS AND KUDOS
- Booklist starred
- SLJ starred
Aven Green loves to tell people that she lost her arms in an alligator wrestling match, or a wildfire in Tanzania, but the truth is she was born without them. And when her parents take a job running Stagecoach Pass, a rundown western theme park in Arizona, Aven moves with them across the country knowing that she’ll have to answer the question over and over again.
Her new life takes an unexpected turn when she bonds with Connor, a classmate who also feels isolated because of his own disability, and they discover a room at Stagecoach Pass that holds bigger secrets than Aven ever could have imagined. It’s hard to solve a mystery, help a friend, and face your worst fears. But Aven’s about to discover she can do it all…even without arms.
THE SHORT VERSION
This book gets loads of positive reviews on Goodreads and from other librarians, but it was just okay for me.
WHAT I LIKED ABOUT INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS
There are lots of things to like about Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. We’ll start with the idea that Aven does not have arms. How does she complete basic tasks of daily life? How does she do school? Does she have friends or get bullied? I’ve never met someone with no arms at all, so Aven’s “lack of armage” is certainly intriguing and makes this book easy to booktalk with middle schoolers.
Aven meets Connor, a boy her age who has Tourette Syndrome. This is another super interesting part of the story, and I learned a lot about Tourette’s from the book. I actually did know a guy who had Tourette’s in college, but I didn’t know what it was (or that it was called anything) at the time. I kept thinking of him as I listened to this audiobook.
Books like this one will help students know and understand disabilities so much better. I wish I had understood Tourette’s when I was in college. I wasn’t mean to that boy, but like many of Aven and Connor’s classmates, I did stay away from him. I’m so glad there are more disabled protagonists in today’s books for young readers.
I liked both the Arizona setting and the Stagecoach Pass park. I’ve never been to Arizona, but this book makes me want to go there! Like Aven, I’ve never seen a saguaro cactus before. I would also love to visit a park like Stagecoach Pass; it sounds like a kitschy little place that you might see in a Scooby Doo or Bugs Bunny cartoon. Fun!
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS
There are a few “kisses of death” for me with books. Insta-love is a major offender, but there is no romance in Insignificant Events. It does suffer another kiss of death though: a precocious protagonist. I don’t see this nearly as much outside middle grade books, but boy is it rampant in middle grade fiction!
Aven is a precocious protagonist. She’s just so darn spunky! She’s not afraid of anything, and even if she is, she doesn’t let her fear hold her back. She has all the best ideas, even better than the adults who are paid to do jobs that apparently, Aven can do better. She’s full of wisdom beyond her 13 years. She’s determined to solve all the mysteries and ask the difficult questions. And everyone loves her! All the adults think she is so darn cute. Free ice cream, anyone?
I wish this had been told from Connor’s perspective. He was a far more realistic and interesting character. His emotions and insecurities ring far more true than Aven’s sprightly wisdom.
“THE QUEEN OF SHEBA”
When Aven’s parents first met her, Aven was two years old. She was born without arms, and the adults taking care of Aven were not making her learn to do things for herself. Aven’s parents said she was like “The Queen of Sheba” because everyone was doing everything for her.
Seriously??? A two year old with no arms can’t do things for herself? Can’t brush her own teeth? Can’t bathe herself or feed herself? My boys both have all their limbs. They didn’t bathe themselves or brush their own teeth at two. I think they were about 5 or 6 before they brushed their own teeth (I “checked for spots”). I can’t remember when they started bathing themselves, but it wasn’t at age 2.
So let’s not call this severely disabled 2-year old orphan “The Queen of Sheba.” That is just not okay at all. And that she still has this “nickname” at age 13 makes it even worse.
The reason Aven’s parents were offered the job at Stagecoach Pass is so convoluted. Aven’s biological grandmother owns the park, and she wanted to see that Aven was doing okay.
Could she not simply call the parents and arrange to meet with them or with Aven? Possibly she was afraid they would say no, but that is their right to say no. Instead of giving Aven and her parents any sort of choice, the grandmother hired a private investigator to find Aven and continually give the grandmother updates on Aven.
She did this for YEARS.
The grandmother denies that this is stalking because she “just wants to know Aven is okay.” Newsflash, lady: Secretly hiring a PI to tail a minor child for years is 100% stalking.
Aven and her parents accept this behavior way too quickly. It’s creepy and stalkery and not okay.
I read Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus on audiobook, which runs 5 hours and 27 minutes. The narrator is Karissa Vacker, who also narrated Monica Murphy’s YA thriller Pretty Dead Girls, along with numerous adult fiction novels.
The narration is great, and I was able to keep my focus throughout the story. Vacker switches between Aven’s voice and Connor’s voices seamlessly. Josephine’s very exaggerated southern accent is annoying.
Overall, a great audiobook and definitely recommended.
Aven is white with red hair. Her parents cue white. Best friend Connor is white and has Tourette Syndrome. Another friend Zion is Black and overweight.
Audiobook cover (below) is light pink and quite different from the hardcover. I like the audiobook cover, but the coloring could deter some boys from picking it up. The original hardcover (at top of this post) is more gender-neutral.
- disabilities, Tourette Syndrome, limb differences, adoption, theme parks, finding one’s biological family, bullying, support groups, friendship, making new friends
LIBRARIANS WILL WANT TO KNOW
Would adults like this book? Yes, many adults will enjoy this, especially those who like reading middle grade literature.
Would I buy this for my high school library? NO – too young
Would I buy this for my middle school library? 100% YES – it’s perfect for middle school. Aven is 13 and in 8th grade.
Would I buy this for my elementary school library? I don’t see any content concerns for elementary. Though Aven is 13, she reads quite a bit younger in my opinion. The lowest age recommended by professional reviewers (Kirkus review) is age 9. Other professional reviewers recommend Grades 5-8, and one (Publisher’s Weekly) recommends age 12+.
If you are in a school that requires grade-specific reviews for elementary grades, you may not be able to get this title.
- Language: none
- Sexuality: none
- Violence: very mild; some talk of murder
- Drugs/Alcohol: none
- Other: There is bullying, but most of the students at school ignore Aven and Connor most of the time.