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On a stormy night in the Low Country of South Carolina, a cat gives birth, under a small blue cottage, to five kittens. When the kittens are unexpectedly orphaned, the family living in the house above them brings them in and helps them to find good homes.

Before the kittens are separated, they vow to reunite one day using the ‘inner voices’ their loving mother told them to follow.

Will they succeed? What roles will the animals of the Low Country play in their adventures? What dangers lie ahead for the kittens?

This is the theme of a new children’s book written and illustrated by Caryl Z. Sweet, naturalist, inveterate globetrotter, and grandmother of 21 grandchildren. In the tale of Gus, Caryl bases her story in part on the real-life adventures of the family’s cat, until he disappeared, possibly taken by the alligator living in a nearby drainage pond.

Caryl uses Gus in this storybook to teach young readers about the value of animals and the responsibilities of owning them.

What motivated you to write Gus and the Invisible Friend, and how is it based on a real-life story?

My daughter adopted Gus for her two daughters, Megan & Emily. Her veterinarian said he had been through some difficult times, but that he was healthy and was a very special kitten. He was only a few weeks old when he landed in their home with his tail standing straight up in the air.  I am told his tail signified he was a contented cat. Katie, their big Black Lab, persisted in chasing Gus until the family resorted to keeping him in the bathroom where he would be less stressed. Confined to the bathroom for hours on end, Gus got into all sorts of mischief including unrolling the toilet paper and turning on the water. Every day I heard about a new adventure until finally I wrote a little story about him.

Did you really lose your own cat to an alligator? How did that influence you to write the book? 

By the time Gus was about eight years old, we lived next door to my daughter and her family. There is a drainage pond behind our houses and it has a resident alligator. There is a fence around their backyard to keep the children and the dog safe, but a fence is no obstacle for a cat who is nocturnal, as are alligators.

I became attached to Gus and his daily visits, until late one night I heard a terrible shriek followed by a loud splash. Gus never came back and I believe the gator had him for dinner. His loss prompted me to take my little story and expand it into a book.

What other “adventures” in the book are also based on real-life events?

Gus was eventually assigned to the garage, which was pretty much as I described it, and in the end was made an outdoor cat. Grace and Callie were real. In the beginning I dreamed up the other four cats based on an image I saw, and I gave them all names. Long after I wrote the original story, our neighbors adopted a gray cat and, by pure coincidence, named her Grace. My son in law found a calico kitten at his ice plant in Savannah and brought her home. My daughter named her Callie after the cat in my story. Both Grace and Callie are pretty true to their personalities in the book. Jim Bob and Sugar remain figments of my imagination.

We have yellow-bellied sliders in the pond behind us and they seem to do fine with the gator. There is a snowy egret that squawks every time it is startled. Beaufort has a swing bridge like the one in the book. We have lots of pluff mud nearby, lots of anoles and a plethora of birds. My yard is filled with saw palmettos, which makes great habitat for small creatures. Generally, the facts about the environment and the animals are accurate.

What lessons are you trying to teach readers?

I hope readers will:

  • Recognize the power within to make good choices no matter what.
  • Recognize that animals all have their own unique personalities, and feelings just like we do.
  • Value family relationships and love one another just as we are.
  • Understand that owning an animal is a responsibility
  • Learn about the Low Country of South Carolina and its plants and animals.

Explain the lesson of the Invisible Friend, and what young readers take away from that.

The invisible friend could also be called our inner voice, our instincts or our conscience. Some people say spirit guide or guardian angel. This is a concept that, as a child, I don’t remember understanding in the way I do now. I was told to take things on faith and to do as I was told. I believe if children can learn at an early age to tune into their inner voices and follow their intuitions, they will stand a better chance of surviving and doing the right thing.

You produced a lot of illustrations for your book. How do the two forms of storytelling – writing and painting– differ and complement one another?

I use words to tell a story and to engage the reader’s mind. Pictures bring the story to life and make it that much more real.  A picture tells far more than I can say in words.

How did your world travels influence your book?  

There is no greater education than travel. Experiencing cultures and environments worldwide prompted me to zero in on what is unique about the Low Country. There are not many places like it in the world.

Travel also taught me that people all over the world are not so different except in the way they are acculturated. The five kittens were all very different, but they had a common bond that united them.

What’s your next project? 

I have two:

My work as a volunteer in a maximum-security prison for five years changed my life. I would like to write a book about the prison system as I experienced it, and what I learned about sociopaths, murderers and rapists.

I also have an idea for an app that would introduce geography to children as young as 2-3 years old. The app could then evolve and become more complex so as to continue to educate all the way into adulthood.

Excerpts from Gus and the Invisible Friend (words and illustrations by Caryl Sweet)

“Think about that Gus. Do you really want to see Ada Mae lying by the pond with a hose hanging from her mouth?

She wouldn’t understand why you did that to her and she would be ever so sad.”

——

That’s my friend Gus,” Lee Roy said.

“Bubba! Didn’t anyone ever tell you cats are dangerous? He could just as easily have eaten you. What were you thinking?”

“But he promised not to eat me and he wants to meet my family.”

“What? That’s enough! Go tell your friend you could not find us. And that’s final! Hilda Mae, start packing. We need to find a new home.”

Caryl Z. Sweet was born in Chicago Illinois, and as an Army brat, lived all over the United States, and spent two years in Japan. After marrying, Caryl and her husband, Jim, lived in Bethesda, then Annapolis, Maryland, and spent seven years in Germany. When Jim retired they moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, and eventually established a second residence in Rosman, North Carolina to escape the hot summers and hurricanes of the Low Country.

Caryl has six grown children and 21 grandchildren. She has dabbled in a wide variety of interests, including owning and operating a small designer fabric business, fashion design, painting, woodturning, pottery making, Master Naturalist and Master Gardener training, writing, and volunteering in prison and schools. “All the while travel has been a big part of my life,” Caryl adds.

Gus and the Invisible Friend is available worldwide and can be ordered from a local bookstore, or purchased on Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.com. It can also be purchased directly from the publisher. The book can also be ordered from Caryl Sweet’s personal website, www.carylsweet.com.