There are great adventures that lay within the binded edges of a saddle-stitched book, particularly in stories constructed for basal readers. Vivid imagery, fantastical words and thoughtful takeaways inspire imagination, while illustrations contribute to the story shared. Nearly irresistible and often surprisingly profound, guessing what’s going to happen next is one of the most amazing of thrills. A similar sentiment can be said for Denise “Jane” Ashworth, a local author who has utilized a lifetime of extraordinary experiences to serve as inspiration for a series of children’s books - each represents a cornerstone of her amazingly long and intriguing life. The youngest of six, Jane grew up in the countryside of England, before graduating at the age of sixteen and going to France to study at a university. Fluent in German and French, she worked at Bletchley Park in England, a central site for British codebreakers during World War II - specifically on the
“I married an American soldier and came to America to live in northern Virginia. He didn’t do well and I divorced him. I went to the University of Connecticut and got my degree and wrote twelve books - it’s been fun,” Jane says matter of factly. In the late 60s she moved to Connecticut, earning her horticulture degree from the University of Connecticut and later receiving her masters in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia. From there, she joined the U.S. Forest Service and was stationed in Cherokee National Forest, a 655,598 acre park lying within eastern Tennessee along the border with North Carolina. She was among the first females to work at Cherokee National Park.
“It was a fun job and you get to meet all sorts of different people; you never know what you’re going to have to run up against or have to do,” says Jane. “All of the law has to be watched over...and then you have to watch that you behave yourself too,” Jane says wisely with a laugh. “I really enjoyed it. I loved hiking, I would go on my own and then I started a club and would lead groups clear over the mountains. You see such beautiful parts of the world that you wouldn’t see otherwise [while hiking], we have a lovely land. It’s just beautiful and really, really lovely.”
In 1991 she began planting 100% American chestnut tree seedlings in clear cut or open areas; now there are almost 900 growing. She went on to be honored as the Tennessee Forest Conservationist of the Year, an accomplishment met with a statue of a white-tailed deer. In her retirement she stayed near the trailhead, operating a bed and breakfast for those traversing the natural world around Cherokee National Forest. Later, she moved back to Connecticut and just a few years ago started taking creative writing classes. With a desire to create backed by an authentic connection to the natural world, Jane completed a compilation of memoirs with varying literary schemes.
“I wrote twelve books and this one [Zoa and the Fawn] is the first to become a book,” says Jane with a smile. “The others are waiting to get published and it’s been fun writing those as well. They’re all for young children, about five years old.”
Published just before Jane’s 100th birthday, the charming story follows the adventures of a young Zoa (named after her mother), a Chocolate Point Siamese kitten. One day while out playing, the kitten stumbled upon a fawn named Sable,
sleeping in the tall grass of a meadow. The two become friends and readers follow their unlikely companionship through the lush landscape of the Cherokee National Forest. From rich descriptions of indigenous flora to exploring particular traits of the animal kingdom, the story serves as a catalyst to get young minds outside to enjoy nature.
With the written component complete, Jane needed captivating illustrations to inspire the imaginations of her young readers; she asked Shannon McCarthy. Shannon grew up in both Gainesville and St. Augustine, Florida and majored in linguistics and classical studies. She intended on being a linguist, but at the time the NSA was hiring, she had a staunch realization the she didn’t want to be employed by the National Security Agency; she began to reconsider her path.
“I wanted to be a little bit closer to the heart,” says Shannon. “My friend told me about a program to become a holistic health counselor in New York City. I thought, that sounds like a good way to be helpful.”
Shannon worked as a holistic health counselor for a stint and during a session she asked a woman, “are you doing what you want to do?” The question was like a boomerang and the elastic inquiry had her questioning her own path. Deep down, she had always wanted to be an artist - a passion she possessed since childhood - but did not perceive the endeavor as a practical means of making a living.
Promising herself that she would pursue art as a career, she concurrently attended the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City, where she would meet her husband, Steve Munn, from Stafford Springs. Shannon moved to Connecticut in March 2006, promptly meeting Jane’s granddaughter, Sarah, at a local bakery. At the time, Jane lived with her family in town and the three women, among others, would visit local greenhouses in the winter, share in holiday gatherings and simply enjoy each other’s company. After a few years of getting to know one another, Jane said that she “had these books,” and asked Shannon if she would be interested in illustrating the collection. Happily, Shannon agreed. But as life happened, the project fell stagnant. It wasn’t until Jane’s grandson, Roger Edward, urged the collaboration forward that Zoa and the Fawn realized completion.
“Roger deserves a lot of credit because he really made the book happen for his grandmother,” says Shannon. “That’s the part of this that I really love. Jane’s family made this happen for her, it became a way to love and respect her. It was her wish to put the stories into book form and for them to help was something special.”
Shannon goes on to explain that Jane’s eyesight has become limited; visually creating Zoa, Sable and their natural surroundings was truly a group effort realized by not just author and illustrator, but by family members and through research of Tennessee’s natural world. With a paintbrush in hand and a firm understanding of Jane’s desires, Shannon began to bring Jane’s characters to life. Her captivating illustrations are simply beautiful, an amalgam of remarkable talent and a true passion for realizing a dear friend’s dream.
“Working with Jane was such a pleasure, she was so glad to have the book moving along. It was just a feel good experience,” says Shannon. “Perhaps the most gratifying part of this experience is reading the book with my children - they are just so loving and appreciative of the tiniest things; people in their early times are truly something special.”
Both Jane and Shannon are incredible humans, each possessing a fervor for life, with an appreciation for family, an
authentic kindness toward others and a consciousness to live each day to the fullest.
“I encourage people to explore their own interests. Never stop,” says Jane. “You never know who you may meet or what you might do, work hard and don’t give up. For me, it’s been a very long and interesting life - it’s been so good.”
“Jane has a real grace and intense curiosity; she’s so alive,” Shannon says with effortless insight. “It’s interesting because people seem to change throughout the years and age affects us all differently. “I asked my mom years ago, why people, as they age, become either beacons of light or curmudgeons. She said somewhere along the line we make a decision to choose one path or the other. When I think of Jane, she obviously is on the path of enjoying life.”