My Old SUV Inspired a Picture Book

I remember the playful statement I made to my teenage son last year on the way to his school. “Will, I need to be a polite driver and obey the laws of the road, because my car is so incredibly recognizable. Other drivers notice me, you know.” Will’s response? Eye roll, wrapped in a deadpan reaction, surrounded by mockery. “Uh, no, Mom, no one ever notices you. No one. And they definitely don’t pay attention your car.” We both laughed and went back to listening to our favorite morning drive radio show.

suvSee, I’ve spent many years braving the freeways of Houston during rush hour while chauffeuring my kids to school. What you don’t know about me is that I like to cover the back of my SUV with meaningful bumper stickers. There’s one from my alma mater, Baylor University. Will’s school, Bellaire High. Katie’s college, Southern Methodist in Dallas. Pamela’s law school at the University of Texas in Austin. Mason’s college, University of St. Thomas. Then there are my declarative stickers: I ♥ Telluride, I ♥ My Havanese, and Do What You Like/Like What You Do! The bumper stickers have become a running joke with my friends and family. But you can’t blame me for trying to make my car seem a little less ordinary than the plain, whitish-bronze, 2003 SUV that it is.

I teased Will that morning about having a memorable car that everyone notices. He bantered back that no one would ever notice me. It was a simple joke, but it got me thinking. What else—besides bumper stickers—makes a vehicle stand out? What makes a car memorable? My own questions triggered me to contemplate art cars. Art cars are pretty darn memorable, I thought. By the time I had finished my morning carpool, the idea for Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car was born. And even though I’m not an illustrator, I knew it would somehow become a picture book.

  • DO A BIT OF RESEARCH!

I wondered. Has anyone already written a story like this? Are there books available for children that describe art cars? I visited bookstores and libraries, and I researched the topic. I found several interesting photographic art car books for adults. But no colorful children’s books. No imaginative made-up stories. I asked around, and I was surprised that many people don’t even know what art cars are.

It seems that most residents in and around Houston know about art cars, because Houston is home of the country’s first and largest annual art car parade (now in it’s 29th year). But most of my friends and relatives outside of Houston have never seen or heard of an art car. This discovery made me want to write and publish my story even more. I couldn’t wait to see the Arthur Zarr of my imagination come to life.

I rushed home from my library/bookstore quest to write. The story is set in a small, imaginary town, where Arthur Zarr is a quiet man with few friends. His life is rather plain, and his car is plain, too. But not for long! Arthur gets a creative idea to add everyday objects to his car’s exterior. People in his community start noticing him for the first time. Neighbors and other bystanders join Arthur by adding their own artistic flair to his car. Soon, he becomes a contender in the town’s Art Car Parade. Arthur Zarr finds happiness and makes friends by building an amazing art car.

  • BE SURE TO COLLABORATE!

All this, just from a silly conversation about my bumper stickers! My husband read the manuscript first, and he liked it. His enthusiasm gave me the confidence to continue to pursue the project. Friends and family encouraged me to self-publish, but I needed objective advice. A local advertising guru agreed to a gratis consult. He listened to my idea, and he said the same thing: go home and self-publish your book. He said something else that stuck with me: “Start talking about your book, Cathey. I’ve seen ideas die on the vine simply because someone was afraid to talk about it. Start talking about your book. Start collaborating.”

I had already written and self-published a nonfiction history book, but never a picture book. I asked around and made a few calls, which led me to a handful of illustrator options. I narrowed the list down to Bill Megenhardt, an experienced Houston children’s book illustrator with great references. His services weren’t exactly inexpensive, but he wasn’t the most expensive either. It was manageable. The illustration and print costs are not small, so this is a serious venture for me. But as my bumper sticker advises, I’m doing what I like and liking what I do! If all goes as planned, the book will be ready by November.

Listen to that kernel of inspiration that might be tickling the back of your mind. Pay attention to the silly stuff you joke about with friends or family. You never know, an object as ordinary as a 12-year-old SUV covered with bumper stickers might be all it takes to trigger your next project. And, like Arthur Zarr, maybe you’ll build something as amazing as an art car.

Hey, how about “liking” my creative guy, Arthur Zarr, on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/ArthurZarrsAmazingArtCar

by Cathey Nickell

Houston-based author of ARTHUR ZARR'S AMAZING ART CAR—the first book for children about art cars. I do Author Visits at elementary schools. SCBWI member.

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© 2018 Cathey Graham Nickell