By Tammy Scileppi
Among the vendors hawking their wares along Austin Street’s recent fall festival, Jane Sayre Denny’s booth really stood out surrounded by young readers anxious to scoop up copies of her works.
The author, illustrator and graphic designers spent most of the day signing editions of her two children’s books “Emmaline,” the tale of a black squirrel living in Queens, and her earlier one, “The Twelve Cats of Christmas.” Both are available at Amazon.com.
Young customers who gathered around her booth couldn’t resist “Emmaline’s” sweet character and unique blend of colorful, hand-drawn illustrations with enhanced photographs, and the equally delightful holiday kitties tale.
But this story is about Emmaline.
Denny is a lifelong animal lover. The Elmhurst resident, who grew up in Brooklyn, has rescued about 30 cats over the years. She has cared for them, made sure they were spayed and neutered and got them medical attention if they needed it. And she named each and every one and even knew their family lineage. Eventually, 10 or 12 felines made her backyard in Elmhurst their home, and Denny actually set up five mini-cat dwellings to keep the kitties safe and warm.
So it wasn’t surprising when the author got friendly with a cute black squirrel who came by one day. Eventually, the little critter became the main character of her paperback.
Denny said she first started seeing Emmaline shortly after her mother died in May 2009. It was a sad time. She was spending almost every day at her mom’s Elmhurst house cleaning up and sorting out her affairs.
“In between bouts of tears, I would see this little squirrel climbing the tree out in front of the house, or in the big oak behind the house,” said Denny. “She was adorable. I had never seen a black squirrel before, and she fascinated me.”
It was especially odd because Denny recently had discovered a photograph of her mother feeding a squirrel, and had used it as the obituary’s picture. Plus, her mom, like the squirrel, had jet black hair.
“I felt there was a connection, maybe a message in it,” she said.
And she still sees her furry little friend almost every day.
“Emmaline comes to the back step and sits on the ledge outside the back door,” said Denny. “Sometimes she eats cat food, which I leave for the cats outside. She most often shows up when I’m worried or troubled about something.”
The author said she didn’t actually set out to write kids’ books.
“Artistically, I do whatever I get inspired to write or paint or draw. I believe artists don’t choose the work we do, the work chooses us. This particular little book wanted to be made, and it chose me to do it. It’s also entirely possible this is my mom’s brainchild, and she dictated it to me from the other side,” she said. “Because this little critter showed up immediately after she passed, the story came to me complete, in one fully formed idea, out of the blue, with every detail in place, and I’ve always felt the story has a sweetness about it that is more my mom’s personality than mine.”
So, how does the artist feel about Queens’ growing creative community?
“It’s wonderful. Ironically, I used to live in Long Island City and everyone I knew was an artist or musician, but that was before there was anything there like you see now. It’s kind of a running joke that all the 12 years I lived in LIC, I was hearing about this big boom that was coming and nothing ever happened. The minute I moved out, it totally blossomed. I love what’s come up there since then, and when I visit I get kind of homesick and wish I had stayed.”
Denny will have another book signing at the Williamsburg Artists & Flea in early December.
And what inspires her?
“I get endless inspiration from the cats, from walks in the parks, and occasionally from TV and popular media.“
The multi-talented artist is a songwriter, as well. Her guitar piece, “Greenway North” was inspired by a walk in Forest Hills Gardens.
Denny’s illustration work includes the Power Kid series (amazon.com), and designs on greeting cards and merchandise (zazzle.com). She just finished illustrating the soon to be released book “The Cats on My Block,” by Valerie Sicignano, founder of the NYC Feral Cat Initiative, published by The Humane Society of New York.
She said she has at least four more book ideas waiting for her to get to them, as soon as she can find the time.