Challenging children to pursue their dreams

Warwick Beacon ·

Oakland Beach first graders know that unicorns are mythical animals. But unicorns were very much alive in the minds of students Thursday, and not just any unicorn. This was an elephant that believed he was a unicorn.

They understood how this elephant felt ridiculed when he told his friends he was a unicorn. And they understood how Michelle Nelson-Schmidt felt when her parents urged her to follow a conventional career and one publisher after another rejected her illustrated children’s books.

Nelson-Schmidt, who now lives in Pensacola, Fla., did find a publisher. Her passion for art was awakened when she discovered the works of a relative, along with a box of colored pencils, as a girl. She worked multiple jobs in order to attend an art school. She told her story and stressed her message to “believe in yourself most of all.”

Using her stories and giant canvases of characters in her books – including an elephant with a horn in the middle of its head – Nelson-Schmidt urged students to follow what “lights them up” and to know what is in their heart no matter how many times they face rejection.

“Just because you listen to your heart doesn’t mean everything is going to be all right,” she cautioned. She said, “Things can be scary,” but stressed for students to love themselves and to “be kind to yourself.”

Nelson-Schmidt worked as a graphic designer and on the side started doing pet portraits. From the pet portraits evolved her first children’s book “Cats, Cats, and Dogs, Dogs!” and a three-year quest to get it published. And seemingly taking the cue from her book “Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster,” she stepped out to tell her story in an effort to inspire others – from kindergartners to college students – across the country. She has given presentations at more than 900 schools in 42 states. Her visit to Rhode Island last week was coordinated by the Educational Development Corporation and Osborne Books and More.

In a brief interview following her presentation Thursday, Nelson-Schmidt agreed she moves quickly through her story. But she said it holds the attention of children and from their questions she understands they are not only following but also understanding the message.

“These are five-minute therapy books, simple messages,” she said. “Everybody loves to be read to.”

The mother of two, a son who is 22 and daughter, 20, Nelson-Schmidt said she is energized by her youthful audiences. She is fed by their attentiveness, connection and questions.

“When I’m in front of them that’s it…I do not get tired until I’m on the plane and going home,” she said.

She also feels what she is doing is important in an age when so much time is spent on social media and in front of a screen. She said she loves the “face-to-face” time she has with students. She made a point of talking with them one-on-one as much as she could as they returned to their classrooms.

She got to see Natasha Boullier and her t-shirt with its message, “Look, I am a unicorn!”