Archives: My Author Visits

I’m Grateful For My Opportunities

This furry, long-eared pink guy looks a lot like my DAD!

This Thanksgiving season, I’ve been thinking about what I’m grateful for. Like many, I would put HEALTH at the top of the list. Not just my own health (which is pretty good, knock on wood), but also that of my large family. My mother had a rather serious health issue this year, as did my youngest sister; thankfully, they have both navigated the road to recovery and are doing fine. My father—at age 82—has a full-time career running a non-profit organization, does part-time ministry volunteer work, and is also working on a PhD in mind-body medicine. Talk about good health … WOW! Dad is truly the energizer bunny! The rest of my family is healthy, too, as are my four children and my husband. I’m grateful.

This job became a two-for-one: it resulted in a book AND a thesis!

Beyond health, I’m grateful for OPPORTUNITIES. I’ve always been a writer. Every job I’ve ever had throughout my career has been as a writer: newspaper journalist, magazine contributor, public relations professional, etc. About seven years ago, I relaunched my writing career when I was hired to research and write the 60-year history of the Institute for Spirituality and Health in Houston’s Texas Medical Center. The result was Uniting Faith, Medicine and Healthcare, a nonfiction book that ISH uses as a communications and development tool. The book also became the foundation of my thesis project, earning me a Master of Arts from LSU-Shreveport in 2013. You can read more about the Institute and their mission here:

Me with Bonnie Blue in front of her amazing art car: Women That Rock.

That freelance job for the Institute opened up my mind to different writing styles, and I bubbled with ideas for children’s books. I launched my first book for kids—Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car—in 2016, and the following year, it was awarded first place by the Texas Association of Authors in the category of Picture Books. My story even inspired the Northeast Louisiana Children’s Museum to create a permanent art car exhibit. Many OPPORTUNITIES opened up for me, and I became an elementary school speaker. I’ve now presented at more than 70 schools, spreading my artsy message about reading, writing and creativity to thousands of children. I also met dozens of creative individuals who enjoy the art car lifestyle; they join me at my school visits, bringing smiles wherever they go.

YAZZY’S AMAZING YARN is available through my author’s website, at several Houston stores, and on Amazon.

My second picture book, Yazzy’s Amazing Yarn, launched in August 2019 and is a playful story about a girl who “yarn bombs” her neighborhood park. It was named a finalist in the 2019 Best Book Awards by the American Book Fest in the category of children’s hardcover fiction picture books. The contest yielded over 2,000 entries from mainstream and independent publishers, which were then narrowed down to some 400 winners and finalists. Reader’s Favorite gave YAZZY a coveted top five-star review. Also, my illustrator, Emily Calimlim, won a diversity scholarship at the SCBWI-Houston conference this year and was named Most Promising Portfolio for 2019. I feel lucky to be in Emily’s talented sphere! Check out the winner and other finalists in my category for the 2019 BEST BOOK AWARD here:

“Yazzy’s Amazing Yarn is a yarn-tastic story that will motivate young readers to be creative and bring color into all aspects of their lives.” — READERS’ FAVORITE FIVE-STAR REVIEW

Other writing OPPORTUNITIES this year include:

  • In June, I was recognized as a finalist in the Writer’s League of Texas 2019 Manuscript Contest for a middle grade work-in-progress;
  • In November, I attended the 2019 Better Books writing workshop in Petaluma, California, which gave me the chance to meet agents, editors, and other talented authors;
  • In October, I had a productive weekend at the SCBWI-North Texas Novel Retreat in Waxahachie, Texas, allowing me to get one-on-one advice from an agent;
  • At the September SCBWI-Houston annual conference, I received critiques from some top editors in the kid-lit world, which improved my work-in-progress;
  • My local writer’s critique group added some new members, creating lasting friendships and valuable feedback on my current manuscript.

Right now, I’m trying to carve out time to write. I’ve garnered some publication interest in a middle grade novel I’m writing, so my goal is to complete it by early 2020. I’ll keep you posted on my efforts!

Meanwhile … what are you thankful for? And remember to BE AMAZING!

P.S. I can’t close this newsletter without patting my friend TERI CASE on the back! She WON in the Fiction Cross-Genre category in the American Book Fest 2019 Best Book Awards for her novel: In the Doghouse: A Couple’s Breakup from Their Dog’s Point of View. This book makes a fun holiday gift or book club read! You can learn more about Teri and her books here:

Fifty (school visits) is Nifty!

What better way to mark the day than with gold balloons?

Milestone alert! I recently celebrated my FIFTIETH school author visit! I’ve delivered my presentation so many times, I can practically do it in my sleep. Nevertheless, every visit feels fun and special. There’s always something new and different that comes up, which means no two visits are ever alike.

Take, for example, that one student who asked, “Why don’t you have a body guard since you’re supposedly so famous?” And the time an honest child informed me that I look older in person than I do in my poster’s marketing photo. Oh, and the really bold kid who wanted me to sign his forehead!

Those are some funny examples, but there are tender moments, too. “I can’t wait to go home and write a book” is a frequent and favorite comment I receive at most every school visit. The girls often tell me they love my necklace (it’s a little blue car charm) or that they love my dog (Cricket is featured in my presentation). I’ve even had some sad comments, like when a child comes up to tell me that he/she doesn’t have a mother (that has happened) or that their father passed away (that has happened, too). When that occurs, I know to just give the child a big hug. Silly, sweet, or sad—I cherish all of these experiences.

Dragonfly Whimzee and Penelope helped me celebrate my 50th school visit!

Reaching my 50th school visit felt important, so I decided to ring it in with STYLE! Houston’s amazing Ridgemont Elementary School in Fort Bend ISD was the school that happened to be my special fiftieth, and I invited not one but TWO art cars. Art car driver Elizabeth Burnham brought her purple furry “Penelope,” and Jada August brought her new painted art car called “Dragonfly Whimzee.” The kids LOVED them!

Jessica Edwards WON the door prize!

A girl at Ridgemont Elementary couldn’t wait to show me her leggings! CRICKET!

I also created a huge gift basket as a door prize (something I’ve never before done for a school visit). I filled it with numerous autographed books, candles, artwork, trinkets and chocolate—I mean, who doesn’t like chocolate? P.E. Coach Jessica Edwards was the lucky winner, and she made my day when she said, “Omg, I never win anything! Thank you!” Then she quickly took off to lock it up in her office for safekeeping, lol!

A roadrunner art car by Bill Megenhardt.

And finally, I gifted the school with an oversized custom drawing by my amazing illustrator, Bill Megenhardt. He drew Ridgemont’s roadrunner as he thought it might look in an art car parade! The students, faculty and staff went crazy for Bill’s creative rendition, which will forever hang in their library.

My 50th school visit at Ridgemont was a good day, and it reminded me of comedienne Molly Shannon as the infamous Sally O’Malley on Saturday Night Live: “I’m fifty! And I like to kick, stretch and kick! I’m fifty!” And that’s how I really feel … kicking my heels up (literally) each time I book another school visit … and streeeeeeetching myself to get outside of my comfort zone.

I can’t wait until the day that I get to post about my 100th school visit … stay tuned! And I hope you all keep kicking & stretching along with me.

~ Be amazing!

Wrangling Words and Authors!

The Texas Word Wrangler Festival, benefiting the Giddings Public Library and Cultural Center.

It’s never easy to travel out of town for a school or book engagement. I have to consider mileage/gas costs, hotel rates, meals, and other logistics. But when I was invited to feature my children’s book at the 13th Annual Texas Word Wrangler Festival—benefiting the Giddings Public Library and Cultural Center—I had to say YES! This resulted in a two-hour drive, a two-night stay … and a lot of fun. Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car loves a good road trip!

Author Jonathan Oliver poses with staff members of the Giddings Public Library.

The first stop was an author visit where I spoke to third graders at Giddings Elementary School. I gave four presentations back-to-back, and after the last talk the teachers said they were having so much fun they didn’t want to leave! So, I stayed a bit longer, answering the many hilarious questions that the students had for me. It was AMAZING!

Thank you for the beautiful drawings and artwork, St. Paul Serbin students!

My second school visit took me to a beautiful facility with the most gorgeous cemetery nestled in a secluded, rural area. There, I gave two presentations for K-5th graders at St. Paul Serbin Lutheran School, and the kindergartners presented me with a stack of colorful, beautiful artwork. I love receiving handmade drawings such as this, and I’ll keep them forever.

The next day was full of book sales at the library. School after school poured through the doors as students were brought by the busload for field trips to meet the authors. The children lined up for autographs, bookmarks and books. I signed one girl’s book and wrote “Be Amazing!”—as I always do—and she nudged her friend, whispering, “Can you beeee-lieeeeve it? She wrote ‘Be Amazing’ in my book!” My feet were aching but my heart was full!

“A Little Bit of Nonsense” was there!

This year, it was Alan Bourgeois’s idea to add a new Saturday event to the festival, complete with food trucks, snow cones, cotton candy, kiddie train rides, a jumpy-bouncy house, and MORE book sales. Alan is founder of the Texas Association of Authors and is a long-time supporter of the Texas Word Wrangler Festival; his efforts helped the library create what we all hope will be a new Saturday tradition. I invited Randy Blair to bring his art car, “A Little Bit of Nonsense,” to the festival, allowing visitors to see and touch a REAL art car up close. Randy and his car were a hit!

One of the best results of this weekend event was rubbing elbows with the other featured authors. I met so many smart, creative professionals, and it was wonderful to exchange ideas and knowledge. It was an amazing weekend full of irreplaceable moments, and I’m glad I was welcomed and honored by the warmth of the people of Giddings, Texas.

Cick here to see the WORD WRANGLER festival website.

Below I’ll post as many photos as I can of these talented writers who were in attendance with me.

Kat Kronenberg of Austin, Texas is author of “Dream Big,” and her next book “Love Big” will arrive soon.

Here I am with Harry Capers of Sugar Land, Texas, author and illustrator of the “Dino Buddies” series of children’s books.

Andrew Fairchild of Texas City, Texas is an award-winning author of many children’s books.

Kathleen Shields wowed the children with her “Hamilton Troll” series and other books, too.

Jonathan Oliver (shown here with his mom) is a stay-at-home father and author of “Joy In the Journey.”

P.G. Shriver is author of the “Sally The Travelin’ Saddle” series and many more books.

Mystery writer Kathryn Lane spoke to 100+ students in Giddings, Texas.

Carolyn Stovall is author of the award-winning cookbook, “A Texas Gal Cooks” (I bought a copy myself!), and “Granny Ozark’s Treats.”

Angela Castillo and Jamie Foley are co-authors of the “Busy Moms Guide To” series as well as middle grade and young adult books of their own.

Keeping It Rolling!

I feel the same sort of awe whenever I see Randy Blair’s art car called “A Little Bit of Nonsense.”

This week, students at three elementary schools will hear all about art cars, writing, publishing, illustrating, creativity and inspiration when I show up to present my children’s book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. The lucky schools are Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet, Travis Elementary School, and St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. And the timing could not be better since Houston’s 30th Art Car Parade  will roll at 2:00 pm Saturday, April 8, downtown along Smith St.

I’ve been presenting my book to various schools in Houston and beyond since last year’s launch. Just this year alone, I’ll have been to about 20 schools by the end of May! WOW! You can check out my calendar here.  I speak to students about how I got the idea for my book (hint: my car sports 16 bumper stickers and counting), how they can come up with their own amazing story ideas, the writing and publishing process, and, of course ART CARS! I also reveal a few “insider secrets” about the making of my book. My illustrator, Bill Megenhardt, often accompanies me on these school visits. And there is always a real art car for the students to see up close!

The student artwork from Atlanta’s Fernbank Elementary was AMAZING!

The best part is getting thank-you letters from the students. One fantastic school—Fernbank Elementary in Atlanta, Georgia—presented me with a huge binder full of their own art car illustrations! It’s also fun to see how creative the schools get in honor of my visit. They build their own miniature art cars, hang art car banners down their hallways, paint wooden cut-out art car signs, and more. Sometimes I can’t believe my little ole’ book encouraged some of these ideas!

A lot of folks ask me how I wrote and published my book. In case you don’t know, I’ll explain how it all started back in 2015. I moved to Houston about twenty years ago, and I had never seen an art car until I landed in this awesome city. These rolling wonders fascinated me, and over the years I took photographs whenever I spotted one “in the wild.” So, I don’t drive an art car myself, but the concept for Arthur Zarr came to me one morning during rush hour while I was driving my teenage son, Will, to school.

A creative parent made this painted wood car in honor of my visit to Southfield School in Shreveport, Louisiana.

I keep the back of my SUV covered with various bumper stickers. I joked with my son, Will, that I need to be a polite driver and obey the laws of the road because my car is so incredibly recognizable. He laughed at me, insisting that no one ever notices me and certainly not my car. “You’re the only person who thinks your car is cool, Mom,” he teased. Throughout that drive, Will’s comment got me pondering what else—besides bumper stickers—might make a car memorable? That question triggered me to think about art cars, and by the time I finished my morning carpool, the initial concept for Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car was born. (Here’s another post about those inspirational bumper stickers!)

I’ve highlighted, notated and dog-eared this book through at least three full readings!

Simply put, I had a playful idea, and I acted on it. Immediately. That very day. I didn’t wait to finish the laundry or to load the dishwasher for the millionth time. I decided to say “yes” to my idea. Most of us have moments of inspiration, but we’re often too tired or too busy to do anything about it. Right? Best-selling author ELIZABETH GILBERT talks about this in her book, Big Magic She writes, “Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.” She goes on to say that she believes “ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners.” I believe that I was an agreeable human that day during my morning carpool.

It’s been a life-changing experience, and I enjoy sharing my message about inspiration and creativity with elementary students. I tell them about my book, which is set in an imaginary town, where Arthur Zarr is a quiet man who lives alone. When he gets a creative idea to add everyday objects to his car’s plain exterior, the people in his community start noticing Arthur for the first time. Neighbors and other bystanders join him by adding their own artistic flair to the car. Soon, Arthur becomes a contender in the town’s Art Car Parade. His life becomes more colorful as the book progresses, and he makes friends along the way. (Hey! That’s kind of like me!)

Themes include recycling, outsider art, friendship building, community pride, and the power of imagination. There’s an ABC motif that runs throughout the book—Arthur adds objects to the car alphabetically. At the end of the book, I included a page that gives readers the “History of Art Cars.” Teachers and librarians appreciate that I added this non-fiction summary, as it helps them tie the story into their curriculum and possible assignments. I explain more about school visits here.

The final result: Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, a hardcover book with dust jacket, published by my very own company, Twenty-Eight Creative (ISBN: 978-0-9961150-0-1; $19.99). It is available for purchase directly from me (there’s a PAYPAL LINK on this website under the BOOKS tab) or at various retail outlets and online through Amazon. Houston shops that carry the book include: Brazos Bookstore, Bering’s Hardware (Westheimer location), and The Beer Can House.

I love my thank you letters! Keep it rolling!

If you have an idea that you think has some legs to it, please grab hold and don’t let go! The creative process is a fun—and sometimes exhausting—pursuit. But it’s one that I don’t regret following. Liz Gilbert believes “we are all capable at times of brushing up against a sense of mystery and inspiration in our lives … You can’t explain it. But it felt as if you were being guided.” That’s what I experienced when I was creating Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. So, I’ll tell you the same thing I tell the students when I speak at schools: Be like Arthur Zarr … Be amazing! The laundry and dishes can wait.

For Me, Second Place is the New First

ValentinyHave you ever come in second place, but still felt like a #1 winner? I have. Quite recently. Last week, I was chatting with a fellow writer friend, and she told me about a fun “Valentiny” contest she had entered. It was hosted by kid-lit author SUSANNA LEONARD HILL, and I couldn’t resist. The challenge was to write a short, 214-word children’s story about a grumpy Valentine. I immediately had an idea, churned it out, and posted it on the contest site within hours. A few days later, I was surprised to discover I was one of the 12 top finalists! What’s more, Susanna reported that she had received 154 entries—her largest contest turnout to date. Her team narrowed all the entries down to 12, and she then opened it up to public voting.

On the morning of Friday, Feb. 26, I discovered that I had won second place! For me, this was a FIRST in so many ways. I had never entered a short story competition before (or any writing contest, for that matter), and I placed second place. It feels great. CLICK THIS LINK to read my entry, called “Kandie’s Kiss,” told from the point-of-view of a heart-shaped piece of candy. The winning story, written by Dawn Young, is a tale called GRUMPY BEAR’S VALENTINE. I don’t mind coming in second behind Dawn, because she wrote an adorable piece, and there’s plenty of Valentine love to go around!

I’ve been riding around on huge puffy white cloud all week. There’s something validating about being recognized with a title (2nd Place Winner!) and a prize (I’m waiting to find out what I won, but the various gifts were all incredible). As the saying goes, “winning isn’t everything;” but this nod in my direction made me realize how important it is to HAVE FUN with my writing career. It’s easy to get bogged down with the marketing, research, phone calls, scheduling, and never-ending to-do lists. This cute little Valentine’s Day contest—or as Susanna Hill calls it, “The First Annual Pretty Much World Famous Valentiny Writing Contest!!!”—makes me think I just might know how to write a little bit after all, despite my frequent worries to the contrary.

goodreads logoA few other amazing numerical things happened this week.  I promoted a Goodreads book giveaway, offering five autographed copies of my new children’s book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, in a free drawing. Well, I was blown away to hear from Goodreads that in just one week, 687 members signed up, all hoping for a free copy of my book. I wish I could send one to everyone, but there are only five winners who will soon receive their free book. Congratulations to Robert from Missouri, Rebecca from Indiana, Tee from Missouri, Linda from North Carolina, and Angela from all the way up in Canada. And thanks to everyone out there who signed up for the drawing. It warmed my heart that my book cover caught the attention of so many readers. Or maybe they just like FREE stuff; which is fine, because I’m kind of like that, too.

IMG_6098I’m also lucky enough to have a few Author Visits at schools around Houston.  I’ll be the Grand Marshall at the St. Mark’s Episcopal School Mini-Art Car Parade in April. (My sister, Ginger, has jokingly recommended that I start calling myself “The Grand Poobah” from now on). I’ll be the keynote speaker at The Kinkaid School at their 4th Annual Art Car Parade Assembly. I’m also visiting The Grace School, Poe Elementary School, and a few others that will be confirmed soon.

Final bit of excitement: I’ll be part of a book blogging tour from March 7-16, hosted by Lone Star Literary Life. CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL REVIEW BY LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE. More details on the book tour in my next blog. A few years ago, I would have never predicted that I’d be involved in school visits, art car parades, and Valentiny writing contests. I’m having so much fun! I hope you are able to carve out time to do that which brings you joy, too.   — Be Amazing

Publicity & Art Car Fun!

contest-wonDid I mention that my book cover WON a Facebook contest in October?  A site called Promoting Picture Books ran a fun contest, and my cover of Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car won! Thanks goes to my amazing illustrator, Bill Megenhardt, who designed the vibrant image on the front of the book and throughout all the inside pages!

My new picture book also was featured at the Wilchester Elementary Arts Market, where I had a booth and sold books. Bill was on hand to draw some adorable on-the-spot artwork for the kids! An art teacher at Wilchester, Stephanie Walton, made it all possible! She will also present my book at a workshop this week at the Texas Art Education Association (TAEA) Art Teacher’s Conference, held in Galveston. She helps other teachers learn how to incorporate art cars into their classroom lesson plans. She rocks! Thanks for handing out my bookmarks and flyers at the conference, Stephanie!

JMH_2026St. Mark’s Episcopal School welcomed me on Nov. 10 for an Author’s Visit. I had a great time talking to the kids in multiple grades about “Amazing Book Ideas: Where do they come from?” They were a fantastic bunch, were super attentive, and asked great questions. Thank you, St. Mark’s, for making me feel comfortable the first time I presented at a school. (Two of my nieces attend this precious school, which made the day even more special for me).

You’ll never believe what this Saturday Nov. 14 is … that’s right, it’s WORLD ARTCAR DAY 2015 Houston! Who knew there was a whole day set aside to celebrate these rolling works of art? The Houston Art Car Museum will have a mini-art car making workshop from 12:00 noon until 3:00 pm. Each child will get a toy car and all the paint, glue and accessories they need to create their very own miniature art car. On hand will be local art cars of the Houston Art Car Klub. Check it out here!

If I think of anything else going on, I’ll update the post. For now, I think this is plenty. It’s been a busy launch week, but lots of fun!

© 2024 Cathey Graham Nickell