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“Keeping secrets doesn’t always help people. Sometimes you need to tell the truth to help them,” Marty. –Across the Desert

Across the Desert

by Dusti Bowling
AR Test, Strong Female

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In Dusti Bowling’s Across the Desert, Jolene wants big adventures – as big as the ones that Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman once had, soaring through the skies with the utmost freedom and overcoming all the challenges they faced. That’s what Jolene dreams of –  except she’s stuck at home with no money and a mom who’s not-so-secretly addicted to oxycodone. 

It looks like Jolene’s dreams may come true when she’s the only one to witness her online friend, Addie Earhart, crash her ultralight plane in the middle of Arizona on a livestream. The problem: Jolene doesn’t know where Addie is exactly, no adults seem to understand the problem, and Jolene is only twelve years old. To save Addie, Jolene sets out with only her map, resilience, friends, luck, and a lot of ingenuity. Along the way, Jolene learns that sometimes the biggest adventures are closest to home.

Across the Desert is an action-packed adventure that includes scenes of Jolene getting into very dangerous situations because of her rash decisions. For example, Jolene and her new friend, Marty, experience injuries throughout, including various stages of heatstroke. Addie also experiences intense injuries when she crashes her ultralight. Although the story ends with Addie recovering, a large part of the book is about Addie’s rescue in the desert. Although the characters’ injuries don’t include graphic descriptions, the scenes are intense as the stakes are high.

Outside of Addie’s rescue, Jolene grapples with her understanding of her mom’s opioid addiction. Most of the knowledge Jolene gains is from looking it up on the library computers. However, once she meets Marty and Marty’s mom, she starts to understand what it means to lose loved ones to addiction. When Jolene discovers that Marty’s sister overdosed on heroin, this spurs Jolene to confront her mom about her addiction. The book tackles the difficult topic of addiction in an age-appropriate manner. Readers will gain insight on how addiction affects not just one person, but many, and that reaching out to help others is crucial. Jolene and her mom learn to identify addiction, and they take the necessary first steps to help her mom receive treatment.

To cope with her mom’s addiction, Jolene initially deals with her trauma by compartmentalizing it into boxes in her mind and putting her feelings away. By the end of the book, Jolene has learned how to trust others and lets her feelings out instead of bottling them up. Marty, her teenage friend, is a massive help to her emotionally and their friendship is incredibly heartwarming.

Across the Desert is best for middle-grade readers who love adventure and enjoy history, as Jolene often references famous women and their accomplishments throughout the book. It is a good start for teaching young readers about addiction and how they can be empathetic towards others who are struggling with their own addiction, or a loved one’s. The story shows how sometimes the best adventures bring friendship and family even closer than before.

Sexual Content 

  • Jolene makes a reference to online predators as she explains her online friendship with internet aviation sensation Addie Earhart. Jolene says, “For all [Addie] knows, I could be some old guy who smells like cheese and onions pretending to be a twelve-year-old girl.” Several people throughout the book, including Jolene’s mom, make similar remarks. For instance, Jolene’s mom says, “This ‘girl’ is probably some creep looking to prey on little girls.”
  • Addie and Jolene talk about their interests, and Jolene mentions that she likes drawing. Addie replies, “One of my mom’s friends draws naked people. I hope you don’t do that.”


  • Jolene describes the dangers of exploration. Jolene says, “Lots of people die while exploring and mapping things. They freeze to death and fall off mountains.”
  • Previously, Jolene and her mom were in a car accident. Jolene describes the accident: “But as Mom started rolling forward into the intersection, I noticed that an old brown truck coming from the other direction seemed to be going really fast . . . Mom turned her head to see what I was looking at, but she didn’t have time to react.” The description of the accident lasts a couple of pages.
  • Jolene occasionally thinks about the car accident. She says, “I remember how I thought Mom was dead right after the car accident. It was so scary. Her not waking up. And the blood. So much blood.” This scene ends with Jolene compartmentalizing her fears and trauma.
  • Addie describes how javelinas are an invasive animal species in the desert where she is. She says into the camera, “You don’t even need a hunting license to kill one because Game and Fish wants them gone so badly.”
  • Addie’s plane goes down during a livestream. Jolene is watching, and she describes, “Addie is screaming so hysterically that I can’t even make out what she’s saying or if she’s even saying words at all. She seems to be struggling to catch her breath, struggling to get a word out . . . One very loud crash blasts my ears, and then it seems for a second that the phone is flying by itself.” The description of Addie’s yelling and the shaky phone video lasts for a couple of pages.
  • Addie mentions how she misses her dad a lot. Jolene asks where he is, and Addie says, “He died. Six months ago. Car accident.” 
  • Addie talks about her favorite aviator, Bessie Coleman. Jolene asks what happened to Coleman, and Addie says, “She died in a plane crash.”
  • After hitting a bump in the road, Jolene is launched off a motor bike. In the accident, her “body slams against the road, knocking the air out of my lungs. Stars burst in my eyes, and then I’m rolling across the hot blacktop, still unable to breathe or stop myself.” The scene is described over a couple of paragraphs.
  • Jolene imagines what would’ve happened had she gotten bitten by a rattlesnake. “I’d have keeled over on my way back to Hope. Just keeled over dead. Based on the number of cars I’ve seen, it might have been several days before someone even found my body. By then, it would have been eaten by animals and buzzards and stuff. Or maybe it would never be found out here.”
  • Marty tells Jolene about how people die in the desert all the time. Marty says, “‘Like a few years ago, there were these people who died on a walk in Encanto Park. They were just walking around on the sidewalk and fell over dead from heat stroke. Like this,’ Marty lets her head fall to the side and sticks her tongue out. ‘Instant deadness.’”
  • Jolene and Marty find Addie in the crashed ultralight with her legs pinned against the rock that she smashed into. Addie says that she can’t really feel her legs anymore. She says, “After a while, they went numb.” Jolene notes that she “can’t see all of her legs” because Addie is pinned to the rock. When they pull the ultralight away from the rock, Jolene notices that Addie’s “jeans and boots are dark red with blood.” The rescue scene is described over a few chapters.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Jolene types “how to quit oxycodone” into the search bar on the computer for what she feels like is the hundredth time. Her mom is addicted to oxycodone after a car accident years before, and Jolene references the facts that she knows about oxycodone occasionally.
  • Jolene tells Marty about her mom’s oxycodone addiction, and Jolene asks what happens to someone if they don’t break their addiction. Marty says, “Then she’ll keep taking them. She’ll need more and more all the time because you build up a tolerance. One day she’ll take so much that she dies.”
  • Jolene asks Marty why she knows so much about oxycodone, and Marty responds with, “Kids at my school take and sell oxy.”
  • Jolene’s mom refers to rumble strips on the sides of the road as “drunk bumps.”
  • Jolene constantly worries about her mom taking too many oxy pills. She thinks, “Will she take more pills tomorrow? Will she take so many she dies?”
  • Marty and her mom tell Jolene about Marty’s late sister, Lucy. Marty tells the story of “Lucy getting her wisdom teeth taken out and the surgeon prescribing the same pills that Mom takes – oxycodone. Lucy was addicted after only a week, and when they tried to cut her off, she spent all her savings getting more pills. And when the savings ran out, she resorted to stealing from her family. They got her on a waiting list for a hospital right away, but the lists are long. Too long…while they were waiting, Lucy tried heroin because it’s cheaper than the pills.” Marty’s mom explains that Lucy overdosed after trying heroin once, and she died. This story lasts for a couple pages.
  • Jolene gets to sit in on a group therapy session at the rehab clinic where her mom is staying. People tell their stories about addiction. A man named Brian says, “I have been an opioid addict for nearly twenty years. Rock bottom for me was being found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs I’d fallen down after shooting heroin laced with fentanyl. They managed to revive me, and I overdosed only six more times after that.” This scene in the rehab clinic continues for a couple of pages.


  • Jolene meets 17-year-old Marty at the bus station. Instead of swearing around Jolene, Marty just says “cuss” because Jolene is 12 years old. This happens occasionally throughout their interactions.
  • Light language is used throughout, though infrequently. Terms include: Stupid, heck, sucks, and stinks.
  • The kids at school used to bully Jolene and called her “snaggletooth.” They also bullied her friend Benjamin. She says, “They pushed him and called him a loser.”
  • At the end of the previous school year, Jolene received a “hand-drawn picture” of herself where “in the picture, [her] teeth looked like a vampire’s. [Her] clothes looked like torn rags. And in big letters across the top: Bye, Snaggletooth.”
  • Marty finds Jolene in a town a few miles away sleeping on a bench. Jolene is mad at Marty for coming to find her, and Marty says, “If you think I’m leaving you here on a bench in the middle of nowhere when you look like you’re already half-dead, then you’re more cracker pants than I realized.” Jolene replies by calling Marty cracker pants as well, though she confesses that she’s “not totally sure that cracker pants is actually a thing.” Cracker pants serves as a replacement for crazy for the rest of the book and is used somewhat often.
  • Marty tells Jolene that it’s Jolene’s fault that she had to go “save her bony butt.”


  • Jolene hears yelling out in the desert and she quickly realizes that they’re coyotes, not zombies like she originally thought. She says, “Coyotes are better than zombies, but still.”

Spiritual Content 

  • On the lawn of Marty’s grandpa’s house, there are some lawn displays including, “an old plastic nativity scene left over from Christmas.”
Other books by Dusti Bowling
Other books you may enjoy

“Keeping secrets doesn’t always help people. Sometimes you need to tell the truth to help them,” Marty. –Across the Desert

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