Izzy Bean Illustration

Tony Lovitt’s first children’s book, ‘Five Trees for Mina,’ was inspired by a veterinarian’s thoughtful gift.

By Michael James Rocha

For his first book, Tony Lovitt found inspiration from something he wasn’t sure he wanted in the first place: a cat. A cat named Mina — a Persian cat “my ex-wife (Brenda) and I acquired for our daughter, Shelby, who was then 8 years old. Mina spent the first 10 or 12 years of her life with my daughter (at her mother’s house), but came to me shortly after Shelby left to go to UC Santa Barbara,” recalls Lovitt, 65. “Around that time,” Lovitt continues, “Brenda had met a man who was deathly allergic to cats, so I somewhat reluctantly ‘took one for the team’ — I’m very allergic, as well — at Shelby’s gentle insistence and adopted Mina. By then, Mina had already been diagnosed with kidney disease (very common in elderly cats, apparently) and I didn’t think she had much longer to live.”

Mina, as it turns out, was not going anywhere for a while.

She “was with me for nearly seven years after that, and she became a beloved companion, a fixture in my life,” says Lovitt, who worked in the Union-Tribune’s creative services department from 2003 to 2009. “She lived for about two years after a subsequent diagnosis of feline lymphoma.”

By September 2018, a month before her 19th birthday, “Mina had slowed down considerably,” he says. “She slept almost all day and was lethargic while awake, had little appetite, was getting sick on a regular basis, and was having difficulty with her ‘aim’ at the kitty box. After consulting Brenda and Shelby, I made the tremendously difficult decision to put Mina to sleep. Roughly two weeks later, Mina’s ashes were returned to Brenda by the vet, along with a card saying that the veterinary clinic had made a donation to the Arbor Day Foundation, which had planted five trees in the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota as a living tribute to Mina.

“I was overcome by emotion after reading the card. I thought it was a wonderful gift, and I was immediately inspired to write the book. The title also came to me immediately, and it has remained unchanged from the book’s genesis.”

Lovitt moved to San Diego in 1981 to work as the media relations director for the USA men’s national volleyball team, which was training for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In addition, he was the English-French public address announcer for the volleyball competitions of the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games. A La Jolla resident since 1997, Lovitt gives us some insight on the story behind “Five Trees for Mina.”

Q: Your book has two objectives. Please tell us more about them.

A: The book’s intent is to help children cope with the death of a pet and to encourage bereaved children and their families to have trees planted to memorialize their pet(s). It occurred to me that a child’s first experience with death and bereavement comes as the result of the death of a pet. That was certainly my experience. My beloved boxer, Lady, died when I was 13, and it was devastating.

As an adult, I was grief-stricken by Mina’s death and could only imagine how much more difficult it would be to endure were I a child. The book’s foreword is written for adults and explains my rationale for writing it. A couple of the book’s “subtexts” are: taking care of a pet is a lifetime commitment and responsibility, not just while the animal retains the “cuteness” of being a kitty or puppy; and veterinarians do a great job. Generally, they’re extremely competent, compassionate and professional. They love their patients, and it hurts them when they have to deal with the death of an animal as well. Dr. Julie Sorenson of Governor Animal Clinic was Mina’s vet from Day One — nearly 20 years.

Q: Since this is your first book, where did the inspiration come from?

A: The inspiration came from the wonderful, touching and compassionate gift from Mina’s veterinary clinic. It still gives me great comfort to know that Mina “lives on” in the form of five living, growing and thriving trees in the Chippewa National Forest. It’s ultimately about a transference of energy, really. I thought that families, in the immediate aftermath of the death of their own pet(s), could be similarly comforted by planting (or having planted for them) living memorials. It doesn’t have to be a tree or trees, but the back cover of the book provides the websites of three nonprofit organizations that offer the planting of trees as living memorials to pets (and humans). I think it’s a great idea.

Q: What was the most challenging part of the writing process?

A: I was too grief-stricken to do much writing or editing without frequent breaks. I spent three weeks visiting friends in various parts of the U.K. in October 2018, which was my “getaway.” I didn’t write a word while overseas, but thought often about the book’s content and format. I wrote a lot in late 2018 and had about 3,000 words written when I contacted my friend (and former U-T co-worker) Sid Shapira, for some advice. A few years earlier, Sid had written and done pretty well with a book called “Danny Dog,” which was illustrated by a British artist named Izzy Bean. Sid gave me some great tips and guidance, including that a standard children’s picture book is 32 pages, with usually no more than 50 words per page. Yikes! I had written three times too much. It was then that I had the idea to write the story from the first-person perspective of my daughter as an 8-year-old, much as Scout narrates “To Kill a Mockingbird” (my favorite book). So, I set about the daunting task of carving the story out of the 3,000 words I’d written. Again, my emotions limited my time at the keyboard, but I ultimately came up with a story — and a message — that I liked and thought would help and inspire people.

Q: How long did it take to write the book, from start to finish?

A: I may have started writing a bit just after Mina passed in September 2018, but I started writing in earnest after I returned from the U.K. in late October 2018. It was emotional, but therapeutic and cathartic, as well. I mostly finished writing and editing about a year later and then started working with Izzy to develop the accompanying illustrations. She did an amazing job. The illustration of “adult Mina” that appears on the cover bears an uncanny resemblance to the actual cat, as does an interior illustration of “kitten Mina.” Side by side with actual photos, Izzy’s illustrations are pretty remarkable.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of the entire experience?

A: Getting positive feedback from children and adults alike. … It’s rewarding to know the book has resonated with people of all ages. It’s not a vanity thing, but it gives me great pride and satisfaction to personally sign the book for someone, knowing they’ll have it for years to come. I’m proud of the whole book, story and illustrations.

Q: You worked for many, many years in media. What part of that experience helped you with the process of getting this book published?

A: I spent most of my early career in media relations and I felt the book needed to be “newsworthy” in some way, not just a nice or silly story. There are a few books out there for children dealing with the death of animals and overcoming grief, but they tend to be more clinical or religious. “Five Trees for Mina” allows the reader (or the child’s parents/grandparents) to infer their own religious or spiritual meaning to the story, at their discretion. I didn’t feel it was my place to do so. I’ve had to dust off my old “PR” hat to market the book, as advertising had been my primary focus since 1997, but I think it helps that the story is compelling, one that most everyone can relate to and from which they can take solace. Ultimately, Mina is a metaphor. The book’s message is pertinent whether she’s a cat, dog, bird, fish or lizard. All that taken into consideration, I couldn’t have published the book without Izzy Bean. Apart from her brilliant illustrations, she knows and helped me to navigate through the (for me) uncharted waters of the self-publishing business. I don’t think the book would have happened without her.

Q: This book is also in Spanish. What made you decide to do that?

A: The U.S. Hispanic market is larger than the entire population of Canada, and many U.S. Hispanics are Spanish-dominant. It made sense to me to create “Cinco Arboles Para Mina” because the story can be enjoyed and appreciated by pet lovers virtually anywhere, regardless of linguistic preference. Its availability in Spanish significantly broadens the book’s market and, with Amazon, is available to Spanish-speaking readers throughout the U.S., as well as in Mexico, Spain, etc. Pretty amazing, really. It’s just a matter of getting the word out. I don’t burden myself with a particular sales objective or timeline. I try to do a little each day — like this interview, for example — and just enjoy being a “children’s book author.” So far, it’s been one of the most enjoyable of my many professional reinventions.

Q: What would you like your readers to take away from reading your book?

A: I’d like readers of all ages to think, “Aww … that was a sweet story,” maybe shed a tear of joy, and be moved to create living tributes to their own pet(s). It’s a book that can be read, as needed, over and over again. It’s dedicated to my granddaughter (born Feb. 27), and I am looking forward to the day when I can read it to her, and I hope there will come a day when she reads it to her own children, as part of my legacy. I think that’s pretty cool.

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“Five Trees for Mina” by Tony Lovitt;

33 pages

Source: The San Diego Union-Tribune