Former Miss America Heather French Henry was ready to launch her career as a children's book author last fall with a tale about Veterans Day.
Those plans came to a halt in October when the vehicle she was driving struck and killed a bicyclist blocks from her Louisville home.
Although police determined Henry wasn't at fault, she was overcome by guilt and struggled to get out of bed or even talk about what happened. She canceled most of her public appearances as wife of Kentucky's lieutenant governor and executive director of her veterans foundation.
But Henry, who advocated for homeless veterans as Miss America 2000, kept hearing from veterans nationwide who urged her to soldier on.
"The veterans groups were extremely adamant about me trying to keep my head together as much as possible," Henry said. "They understood a lot of what I went through probably more than anyone."
So she returned to writing and illustrating children's books about Claire, a rambunctious 8-year-old girl who learns about patriotism and volunteerism in everyday life.
"It was hard to come back into real life, and every day it is still hard in a lot of aspects," Henry said. "And any time I've gone through anything -- happy, sad, mad, whatever -- drawing has always been an outlet."
The first installments in the series, "Claire's Magic Shoes" and "Flying Away," were on bookshelves in May. "What Freedom Means to Me" came out for Flag Day, and "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Jellybeans" for July Fourth. The books are geared toward children in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Henry, 29, who has a master's degree in design and illustration, completed 32 color drawings for each book.
Published by California-based Cubbie Blue Publishing Inc., they sell for $15.95 and are available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. All royalties go to support Henry's veterans foundation and her lobbying efforts in Washington, which she said are becoming more important as troops return from Afghanistan and Iraq.
In "Pepper's Purple Heart," which Henry wrote before her accident, Claire's dog is hit by a car as she and her best friend, Robbie, are pretending to rescue him in a military operation.
Her neighbor, Mr. Jones, takes care of "Sergeant Pepper" and gives the dog the Purple Heart he received as a Marine in Vietnam to wear when they all march in the Veterans Day parade. Mr. Jones, a four-star general, teaches Claire about opportunities for women in the military and invites her to visit the veterans hospital with him.
"Veterans are the true heroes -- not the guy dribbling the basketball or throwing the football," said Ken Moore, a Vietnam veteran from Rochester, N.Y., who frequently works with Henry. "I think it's important that a child know that. These books will help accomplish that."
Henry, whose father is a disabled Vietnam veteran, said she would like to write future books about Memorial Day, Presidents' Day, Mother's Day and Father's Day.
Denice Ruddle, spokeswoman for a Louisville Barnes & Noble, said more than 50 people bought books at a signing with Henry in May.
"The kids love it when she reads to them," Ruddle said. "They enjoy the stories, and the illustrations are very colorful."
Pete Dougherty, director of homeless veterans programs in the Department of Veterans Affairs, said he was among those who encouraged Henry to return to the fight on the veterans front after her accident.
"Life is full of unforeseen circumstances, and I wanted her to understand that society would greatly benefit from her staying involved," Dougherty said. "Her stories are about what military veterans have done for this country. She understands the sacrifice they made and the impact on families of veterans."