Dusti Bowling writes layered stories for middle graders
Dusti Bowling's latest, Across the Desert, is about 12-year-old Jolene who sets out into the Arizona desert to save the downed 12-year-old pilot, Addie, behind Jolene's favorite livestream. It promises to be an adventurous middle grade story that also deals with heavy issues like parental addiction, and Dusti told me in a written interview that she was inspired by her own experience with parents who lived with addiction.
"When I was a child, all of the books I loved were mostly about happy stable families—the Ramona series, The Babysitter’s Club, and Sweet Valley High," Dusti said. "It would have been incredibly comforting for me to see someone else experiencing the same difficulties I was going through, and think it would have made me feel less alone."
Dusti decided to combine the heavier topic with an adventure story because, "I also knew that I didn’t want to just hammer kids over the head with a super heavy story that focused solely on addiction. And so I chose to wrap it in an exciting adventure story, inspired by my love of Arizona and specifically Alamo Lake State Park, which is one of my family’s favorite places."
The author of several middle grade novels, Dusti said she grew to love reading around third grade when she herself was reading books marketed toward middle graders, and that's why she chooses to write for that age category now.
"It’s my hope to create books that could be as meaningful to children as the books from my childhood were to me," she said. "I also feel that middle grade is a very special time in a child’s life when you can hook them on reading."
Though she always loved reading and storytelling, Dusti didn't start to pursue writing until she was nearly 30, when she says, "Then one day, when I was nearly 30, I had an epiphany—if I never even tried because I was so certain I would fail, I would wonder What if? for the rest of my life, and it would haunt me forever," she said. "I knew then that even if I failed, I could never regret having tried my best at something I cared about, and there would never be any What ifs."
Dusti's process with writing Across the Desert involved a lot of research — she said because she mentions a lot of female explorers and aviators, she got to dive into their lives. She also traveled the route through the desert that Jolene takes.
"After contemplating writing a story about addiction for so long, finally doing so was very cathartic for me," Dusti added.
Like many of her other books, this one presents as one type of story (adventure through the desert!) but Dusti pointed out that it contains another layer, the story of addiction.
"I think that’s what most people find surprising about my books—they’re not only what they seem and can have many layers," she said. "The Canyon’s Edge looks like a basic survival story that takes place in a dangerous canyon, but it’s really about trauma, therapy, and healing. 24 Hours in Nowhere deals with the cycle of extreme poverty, abandonment, and the imprisoning of children in this country. And my upcoming Dust, which is about dust storms (and also my first attempt at magical realism), addresses sexual abuse."
There's a scene in the book that involves an intervention with Jolene's mom, and Dusti spoke a bit about what it was like writing that scene. She shared that she's been through "more interventions with my own parents than I can count," and those have been hard moments to live through, especially when they didn't turn out the way she had hoped.
"It was incredibly hard for me to strike a balance between realism and hope," she said. "I’m lucky to have an incredible editor who repeatedly challenged me to be honest, and I think (hope) I told the truth during that scene while also leaving readers some hope."
Dusti's advice to aspiring authors is twofold: first, to read, and second, to make room for uncomfortable feelings. In other words, "Let your mind wander. Get bored! From boredom comes creativity," she said.