Carolyn Britten: Brother’s Death Inspires Local Author to Help Children Deal with Loss
Zoe is a sensitive cat who lives with her family, David and Nancy, in San Francisco. She is aware that David especially needs her comforting companionship.
“I, Zoe” is a picture book written by Visalia resident Carolyn Britten, illustrated by Justyne Silvas, from the cat’s point of view as David suffers with colon cancer that eventually takes his life. David was Carolyn’s brother.
“He was extremely brave and fought his illness with grace and dignity,” Britten said. “He had a great work ethic and continued to work as long as he could.”
Britten has always been an avid reader and has had ideas for other books, but never expected to write a children’s book.
“In my grief and sadness, I decided to write this book with the theme of ‘hope through loss,’” she said. “Originally, I wrote it just for my family. However, I soon realized that David’s story could help many children who have faced loss.”
Carolyn’s family members began arriving in Visalia in 1960 when her father, Dr. Gordon Smith, finished his OB/GYN residency in his home state of Oregon. A medical school friend of his had recently started practicing at the Visalia Medical Center and relayed the news that Visalia had a shortage of specialists in Dr. Smith’s field. Dr. Smith flew down to check this out and concluded that his friend was right. The next step was to persuade his wife, Betty, to join him with their three children, David, 7; Janice, 4, and Carolyn, the baby, at 1 year old.
“My mother had never been out of Oregon,” Britten said. “As the story goes, my father talked my mom into moving to Visalia. In 1961, she arrived on the hottest day of the year. It was 115 degrees.”
While the shock of flying from the coolness of Oregon and landing in the furnace of a Valley summer may have given her some doubts, Mrs. Smith managed a smile as she posed with her three children for a photo just after her arrival in Visalia. Britten said it did take her mother some time to adjust to the climate.
“But eventually, she absolutely fell in love with Visalia and was extremely involved in the community,” Britten said.
Growing up, the children attended Conyer, Divisadero and Mt. Whitney schools. Carolyn enjoyed her high school years, where she played on the tennis team, was vice president of her sophomore class, junior varsity cheerleader and song girl.
David also loved high school, according to Britten.
“David’s personality was outgoing with a contagious laugh,” she said. “And he had a great group of friends. I remember his friends always played pranks on each other. They also formed a band where David played the guitar. David was a golfer and loved cars.”
Both siblings attended the University of Southern California after their respective graduations from Mt. Whitney. David majored in accounting and Carolyn in education.
Britten worked for six years as a resource specialist with the Visalia United School District and for two years at St. Paul’s School.
At the time of his death, David was controller for Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco, for girls from kindergarten through eighth grade.
David’s illness was diagnosed about four years ago. When Britten decided to work through her grief by writing his story, she envisioned it to be about love, loss, courage, compassion and hope. And she decided to filter it through the eyes of his rescue cat, Zoe. She also imagined it as a picture book, which meant that she needed an illustrator.
“That was one of the most rewarding parts of writing the book,” she said.
Her illustrator, Justyne Silvas, is the daughter of her friend, Jill Silvas, who, as Britten described her, is “extremely creative and talented.” They worked together on designing the pictures and became friends in the process. One of Justyne’s innovations was the mouse that hides on several pages.
“She came up with the idea so that the children could go back and count how many times the mouse appears,” she said.
To publish her book, Britten decided to go with Mascot Books, following extensive research into which publisher to use. She has been happy with results from the company, which promises that it will help authors throughout the publishing process to produce high-quality books in line with the authors’ visions.
“They have been great to work with every step of the way,” she said.
Britten points out that Justyne Silvas is now writing and illustrating her own book, which she plans to publish through Mascot.
“I, Zoe” includes a parent-teacher guide in the back offering discussion questions and lists of words to talk about. It also includes projects for the children to do.
“It’s one of my favorite parts of the book,” Britten said. “I wanted it to be extremely interactive for the parents, teachers and children.”
She suggests that together the book and the guide provide a way for parents to begin a conversation with their children about loss.
“As a parent, it is sometimes not easy to know how to open the conversation about loss, whether it be the loss of a pet, divorce, a grandparent,” she said.
Some of the books come with yet another feature. It seems Britten is blessed with artistic friends.
“Mary Jane Yada, a friend of mine, came up with the cutest puppet of Zoe,” Britten said. “Mary Jane is so talented and creative. She did an amazing job on the puppet.”
Some weeks ago, Megan Beltran, learning director at Roosevelt School in Lindsay, asked Britten to read her book to 58 third-graders.
“It was my very first reading. It was so exciting, but extremely humbling,” Britten said.
She answered questions, signed books and talked to each student.
“I gave each child a new book to take home,” she said. “Many of the students have never owned a new book. It is a day I will never forget.”
Another day that should live in her memory is May 15. On that day, she read to kindergartners at Katherine Delmar Burke School, where David had worked.
She points out that next to the school, there are steps formed from beautiful mosaic tiles. On the day the steps were dedicated, the school bought one of the tiles in David’s honor. The unveiling was covered by the San Francisco Chronicle, whose reporter noticed David’s wife, Nancy, crying during the ceremony.
“The next day, there was a huge article showing the ribbon-cutting, and the tile they highlighted was David’s,” Britten said. “I thought that was pretty amazing.”
All of Britten’s profits from the book go to Strides for Life, an organization based in Burlingame. It was founded in 2004 by Barbara and Lawrence Cappel to honor their son, Dylan, who died of colon cancer at 23 when he was training for the U.S. Olympic rowing team. Barbara Cappel grew up in Hanford.
The organization provides education and free colon cancer screening for low-income, uninsured and underinsured individuals.
“It is an impressive organization that truly changes lives,” Britten said.
Now Zoe, the rescue cat, can continue to salve and save lives in multiple ways.