Mom’s Choice Awards is excited to announce another post in our interview series where we chat with the inventors, designers, publishers, and others behind some of our favorite family-friendly products.
Hello, Mom’s Choice readers! Thanks for joining us for another one of our interviews where we get the chance to speak with one of our distinguished MCA honorees. For this interview, we were able to sit down with Jane Sayre Denny, author of the Mom’s Choice Award-winning book, Harry Goes To Heaven! Harry Goes To Heaven is the story of a pet cat who becomes ill, prompting The Talk between a mother and child about what happens when “people and animals get so old or so sick that we can’t make them better.” This is a beautifully written and illustrated book that is sure to tug on the heartstrings of anyone who reads it. Keep reading to find out more about Jane and her award-winning book, Harry Goes To Heaven!
MCA: Hi Jane, thank you so much for joining us today, and congratulations on your Mom’s Choice Award! Harry Goes To Heaven is an endearing and comforting book that is relatable to readers of all ages. Can we first start the interview by finding out a little bit about yourself?
Jane: I am a prolific artist, writer, and musician and have been since I was very small. I went to the High School of Art & Design and The School of Visual Arts in NYC. After a few graphics jobs, I took a detour from visual arts to pursue a degree in audio engineering, which I parlayed into a career in recording studio management. I did this with the idea that it could further my music ambitions. Always a visual artist, however, I usually ended up the house designer wherever I worked, and eventually doubled back into a career in design, this time with many music clients.
In my early thirties, I went full-time freelance with my own design firm, The Mad Hand Arts, Graphics & Design. I’ve since designed for countless clients and products worldwide, everything from corporate to sports, rap stars to novelists. And all kinds of projects including branding, books and magazines, CD package design, merchandise, and more.
I always had ideas for kid’s books but never attempted to do one until I was hired to illustrate one for a client. Through that experience, I learned the process of book formatting to Amazon’s (what was called CreateSpace at the time but is now) KDP specs. And then I saw a road forward for all the books in my head. Top of my list was The Twelve Cats of Christmas, a spoof of the famous holiday song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, with an all-feline cast. That’s not so much a children’s book as a novelty/humor publication. But kids do love it. The Twelve Cats of Christmas won the International Cat Writers’ Association (CWA) Certificate of Excellence, Muse Medallion, and the Kuykendall Image Award for outstanding image series featuring cats. I have a shop where I have individual designs from the book on gift items (zazzle.com/thewhitecatco). It’s become a staple of the holidays.
After that, I quickly got to work on Emmaline, the story of a little black squirrel who lives in Queens. It was inspired by a real black squirrel who was living in my yard at the time. I also published that through Amazon KDP.
Since my mid-twenties, I have been drawing a reality cartoon called The Pride. It’s about my funny anecdotes and experiences with the cats in my life, starring one very nutty, all-white, a deaf cat called Johnny. It got quite popular. The Pride won the International Cat Writers’ Association Muse Medallion for best cat cartoon and had a recurring spot in New York Tails Magazine, which I produced for Diane West, Editor, from 2006 to 2011.
It was through New York Tails and the cartoon that I was asked by Valerie Sicignano (founder of the NYC Feral Cat Initiative) to illustrate the children’s book she was writing, The Cats On My Block, a humane education book for children about community cats and helping prevent their overpopulation through TNR (trap, neuter, return). This was published by the Humane Society of NY and all proceeds go to support their work.
MCA: That’s absolutely wonderful! It’s always so powerful and fulfilling when you can connect passion and purpose. Can you elaborate more on what lead you on your path to becoming a writer?
Jane: I’m not sure there was a path, per se. I always wrote, journaled, occasionally dipped a toe into poetry and certainly as a songwriter lyric writing is important. But in terms of a path, I feel like I was born on it. Nothing really led me to it.
When I was younger, I would have said my top writing inspiration was relationships and love, especially when it failed. Heartbreak is a genius! But the truth is, my real muse is cats. I have always had cats, always found them extremely inspirational, and they end up in all my work, sometimes the heroes and heroines.
MCA: As Tim Weed of lithub states, “Cats are natural companions for writers…they tend to strike us as kindred spirits. Observers. Introverts. Always practicing their craft.” It sounds like you have had a lot of kindred spirits in your life that has translated in your work! I think it’s safe to say that your it was one of those feline companions that was the inspiration behind Harry Goes To Heaven?
Jane: Harry Goes To Heaven is my oldest idea for a children’s book, but ironically, the most recent to be finished. I had the idea while babysitting my then 3-year-old nephew. This was shortly after the passing of my eldest cat, and my nephew surprised me with the question, “Where’s Harry?” I was unprepared with an answer, his mother was not there to endorse anything I might say, and I knew this would be his first encounter with the subject of death. So, I just fibbed and said, “he’s at the groomer.” I instantly knew there needed to be a book for children on this subject.
My nephew was 20 when I began actually working on it, and 22 when I finally published Harry Goes To Heaven through Amazon KDP. A lot of obstacles and crises monopolized me in that intervening time, and I was unable to give the project the attention it deserved, but it was always in my mind. The moment I had the free time and undivided attention to give it, I gave it everything I had, and I am very proud of the result.
MCA: As you should be, Harry Goes To Heaven is so heartwarming and comforting for children and adults of all ages going through the difficult loss of a beloved pet. What are the key lessons found in Harry Goes To Heaven?
Jane: My intention for Harry Goes To Heaven is to be a comfort for children grieving the loss of a pet, and/or a tool to help parents prepare young children for the impending loss of a pet. I hope the lessons they take away are that there is a life after this one, which I genuinely believe, and it includes all souls. Also that it is ok, in fact normal, to feel and express grief over the loss of a beloved animal friend.
MCA: How do books about the death of a pet help children learn how to cope with loss and grief?
Jane: I think that if the central character or the narrator of a children’s book is a child, kids will digest the meaning of the book more readily because they get to know someone like themselves that they can empathize with and relate to. Especially if there are illustrations. They can see, rather than just hear, what is happening with the character and truly experience it. In a book about loss and grief, they have someone like themselves who’s been there already and can share the sadness. And while I didn’t intend my book to deal with anything other than the loss of a pet, the comfort they find in it could certainly project to the loss of a beloved person.
MCA: Tell us about the beautiful illustrations that can be found with Harry Goes To Heaven that you created and the inspiration behind them!
Jane: Thank you! Well, Harry of course was a real cat, and so it was easy to visualize and draw his character. And the story was true, so that was not anything I had to reach for. The mother in the story is a likeness of me, and the child is a version of me at that age. So none of the characters or stories were a reach. My backgrounds and scenery are usually visions of my dream home – that’s where I live out my fantasies of a big Victorian house with a French country kitchen, New Orleans style windows, velvet furniture, the works. (laugh) All the things I don’t have in my little bungalow.
MCA: That definitely sounds like a dream home! What kind of response have you had from readers?
Jane: It’s been wonderful. Across the board, HGTH has been met with the warmest and most sincere affection. People seem to really love it. Mind, most of the people reading have lost pets, so their feedback is very emotional and usually includes accounts of their beloved pet and how special he or she was. To my surprise, I have more feedback from adults than children, about how deeply it affected and comforted them. It’s been really beautiful to hear.
MCA: That is very beautiful and certainly emotional, thank you for sharing! Thank you for an amazing interview, Jane! We hope to hear from you again very soon.
You can learn more about Jane Sayre Denny and her award-winning book, Harry Goes To Heaven by visiting their MCA Shop pages.