The healing power of drawing

Leah Nixon survived a construction accident that severed her spinal cord. Illustrating a children’s book became part of her recovery.

‘Best Day Ever’ indeed: June 29, 2021, was one of those for Leah Nixon, BFA ’11. That's the day both her firstborn, Ellie Grace, and her first illustrated book arrived at her Tennessee home. (Courtesy photo)

Each Aug. 14, Leah Nixon, BFA ’11, and her family celebrate “Leah Lived Day” to commemorate the day she survived the construction accident that fractured her spinal cord. 

“Working for Habitat for Humanity, we were putting up rafters using a machine called a telehandler, which is like a forklift with a long arm,” she recalls. “I was in charge of the guide rope tied to the rafter.” The last thing she remembers thinking is, “I feel like a mouse leading a Brontosaurus.” 

About Leah Nixon

WASHU BEGINNINGS: During her sophomore year, Nixon won a contest to design the annual holiday card sent out by then-Chancellor Mark Wrighton. The card featured a squirrel sleeping in a tree overseeing Brookings Hall. She didn’t know then that it would be her first of many card designs. 


FUN FACT: “Besides my dog Lucy, I also have 40 chickens, two goats, a donkey, another dog and a cat.” 

When Nixon woke up in the hospital a few days later, she finger-spelled a question into her sister’s hand: “Can I still draw?” The burst fracture paralyzed her at armpit level, she had lost a leg but miraculously retained full use of her arms. “I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil or crayon in my hand.” 

As part of the celebration, Tiny & Snail, the stationery company she co-founded with her sister Grace, launches a new collection to mark the day every year. The first collection, titled “Keep Dancing,” launched in 2019, a year after the accident. “That was a theme I came up with in rehab, partly because we started doing dance parties in the intensive care unit. For me, ‘keep dancing’ means keep doing what brings you joy, even though it might be hard.” 

Best Day Ever! is Nixon’s debut as a children’s book illustrator. The book, written by Marilyn Singer and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, follows a boy in a wheelchair as he spends an adventure-filled day with his slightly mischievous yet utterly charming dog. 

The vibrant illustrations are partly based on reference photos of Nixon and her own dog, a chihuahua-terrier mix named Lucy. Each colorful page is full of captivating details. 

Although she started illustrating the book in 2019, pandemic delays pushed the publication date to 2021. “I think I was pretty much done illustrating when I got pregnant, and so it was sort of a race between the book and the baby to see which one would come out first.” 

As if to honor the book’s title, Nixon got to take her firstborn, Ellie Grace, home on the very same day that the book hit the shelves, June 29, 2021. 

Though she expects to illustrate more children’s books in the future, Tiny & Snail is still at the center of her creative life. She thinks of her cards, which are purposefully left blank inside, as a collaboration with the sender. The cards are unfinished until someone writes a message in them.

“I want to encourage people to tell other people that they love them, because you never know when your last day is going to be. I can’t really think of a more fulfilling way of using my art.”

— Leah Nixon
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