A few days ago, 25 boxes arrived at my house containing 1,000 copies of my book, Joe and Dusty Save the World.
In the book, a little boy with a learning disability and his carer dog show that kindness, fun, laughter and love are powerful enough to save the world from aliens who don’t understand what those things are. It’s up to Joe and Dusty to show them. The book is fully illustrated and in rhyme.
There are two forewords. One is by the actor and activist Julie Hesmondhalgh, and the other is written by actor, dancer and model Sarah Gordy, who is also the first woman with Down’s syndrome to be awarded an MBE.
I opened one of the boxes and finally held in my hands something that had been stored in my imagination for years. It was in my head and then, there it was. A real thing that I could touch, read and share with you. On the cover, following the words ‘written by’, it says my name. I can’t tell you how that feels.
So, why does this book exist and how did it happen?
Just before lockdown, my lovely Mum died. She was neither a healthy nor a wealthy woman. But from her, and also my late dad, I inherited the joy of a good laugh, a big heart, a toilet-based sense of humour and a set of stoic working class values. And a little bit of money.
I decided to use all those things to make a dream come true and write a book, something that reflected what I inherited from my parents. Despite it taking almost two years before I could hold a physical copy in my hands, it’s here. I’ve written lot, both for work and for pleasure, but never before have I tried to publish fiction.
The book is about a disabled boy and his dog. It’s the story of their bond, friendship and love, and a tale about how big an impact those things can have. It’s not the story of a boy’s disability, like so many other books for kids in that category.
So, when I lost my Mum and my father-in-law in December 2019, I started to write. Then, in December 2020, and from out of nowhere, my best friend died and, the following day, my husband’s Mum died, too. To say it was a tough time is an understatement. I stopped writing. I, we, grieved.
And without it coming across as trite, I cannot express enough how much the constant, never-ending, fun-loving, open-hearted, laughter-inducing abundance of love given to us by our dog Dusty helped to get us through. Every day we were reminded that we needed to live for that day only. That today’s walk in the woods was so exciting. That today’s din-dins was the best din-dins. That every cuddle, snuggle, chewed up sock and smelly dog fart was a reminder of love and living, just for today. And one day followed another, and another…
You can see where my inspiration for Dusty came from. She’s real. She’s mine. But what of Joe?
My eldest sister was disabled. She was disabled in just about every way you could imagine. She suffered severe brain damage in the womb and never walked, never talked, and was what people used to describe as ‘spastic,’ handicapped’ and ‘crippled’. My parents had next to no state support, for these were the days of ‘getting on with it’. Add on a couple of epileptic fits a week, and you can imagine what family life in our small council house was like.
Or can you?
Actually it was warm, loving, and extremely emotionally open. Pauline had almost no life-expectancy, but she didn’t leave us until she was 16-years-old.
One lasting impact of growing up with my sister is that disability has always been just another version of normality to me. It has never been ‘them’ and ‘they’, just an ‘us’. I work with and around disabled, deaf and neurodiverse people all the time. Or, should I say, I work with people.
Another impact is that I have grown up experiencing and valuing openness, honesty, humour and empathy. We had neither the time, space, energy or finances to afford the luxury of living in any other way. Consequently, I think that kindness should be everyone’s highest aspiration.
Empathy, kindness, laughter. These are the values with which Joe and Dusty save the world.
Anyway, after a while my grief turned into something else, and I determined to finish the book and get it out there. I employed friends to illustrate and design it, I found an ethical company to print it, and I set up a GoFundMe campaign to support printing copies just to give away.
You can even buy a ‘kindness bundle’ that gives you a hardback copy and also donates a paperback which we’ll then share with libraries, charities, and families who want one.
Naturally, I want the book to sell, because I want people to read it, but it’s genuinely not about the money. I want to be able to write Joe and Dusty’s next adventure and the next one, so I’ll have to flog a few copies to be able to afford that.
It’s unlikely I’ll break even. So, why did I write it? Maybe because the values Joe and Dusty live by feel as if they are under threat. Are kindness and empathy declining forces in society? Sometimes it feels like it to me and perhaps Joe and Dusty represent my belief that we all have something good and positive to contribute and that different abilities are not lesser ones. We all have value.
So, while I’m not going to give the ending away entirely here (you’ll have to buy the book, I’m not stupid), the most important thing about Joe and Dusty is their ability to express something that we should place a high value on.
And it rhymes with dove, shove and glove. I know, I’ve got a rhyming dictionary.
By Robert Martin
For more information about Joe and Dusty Save the World, or to buy a copy of the book, click here.