PAYSON — For Amelia Murdock, the ability to create art helps her stay sane while raising her two daughters (and soon another baby who's on the way).
"When I became a mom, I realized that being a mom is awesome, and I love it, but it kind of drains my emotional cup. And so I realized I need to have something every single day that can fill up my emotional cup, or I'm just going to go crazy being a stay-at-home mom," she said.
The Payson artist says spending two or three hours every day painting horses or working on illustrations after her daughters go to bed helps her be a better mom and happier person.
And she's been able to use that talent in an unexpected way — teaching her oldest daughter how to read.
When Murdock first started teaching her 4-year-old, she became discouraged by a lack of engaging curricula for young children.
She combed the internet, asked other mothers for recommendations and was disappointed in what she found — a lack of visually appealing and effective options.
Many of the books she looked at taught children using a whole-word system, memorizing words rather than learning to sound them out.
"I kind of was looking at everything and thought, 'These are so bad,'" she said.
She then talked to her own mom, who had taught Murdock and her six siblings how to read before kindergarten. Her mom showed her a "really old manual" of "old-school phonics learning."
The phonics method teaches reading and writing by helping children sound out words.
Murdock looked at the manual and thought: "Someone needs to make this into stories for kids."
She realized that was something she herself could do. A professional artist, she studied illustration at Brigham Young University, fine art at Grand Central Academy of Art in New York City and then worked as an apprentice for a Los Angeles portrait artist.
Last August, Murdock decided to use her own art background to create "Dash Into Reading," a colorful series of story-based early readers meant to help teach young children using phonics.
She completed the 10-book series and self-published it in April. Since then, she has sold 300 sets, many delivered around the world to countries like South Africa, Australia and Germany. A preschool in Pakistan is even using them.
All of her marketing has been through Instagram and word of mouth, she said.
She originally had an agent who wanted to get the series in front of major publishing houses. One of the biggest children's publishing companies looked at Murdock's idea but wasn't interested because it said the market was too small for phonics reading, and it would take too much effort for the company to test the idea.
"That's why there's nothing on the market, because the publishing companies don't think it'll be good for their business model," Murdock said, adding that the phonics method has fallen out of popularity for the past 20 years or so.
Despite the publishing company's lack of interest, she moved forward with the idea, spurred by positive feedback on Instagram. There, she posted photos of her first illustrations and got a "huge response" from people who wanted to order the books.
"That really helped my confidence, and that really got me going to finish the rest of them," Murdock said.
It took a weekend to write and revise the stories. They were difficult stories to write, because of the limited number of words she could use for first-time readers.
"One of the things I really wanted to do was to not show, not have words that kids aren't going to know, that are going to surprise them or crush their confidence," the illustrator said.
The artwork took much longer. While her husband was still in graduate school, she worked on the hand-painted illustrations after her daughters went to bed, from about 8 p.m. to midnight every day until they were completed.
She continued working on the artwork through a cross-country move from Chicago to Payson and through the morning sickness brought on by her pregnancy.
Since completing and publishing the series, she says she's received a lot of positive feedback from people around the world. Though her paintings hang on people's walls, she says the "Dash Into Reading" books have given her a unique way to connect with clients.
"The books have been really awesome because I get so much good feedback. People constantly posting pictures of kids reading them, kids copying drawings. … It's been fulfilling in a different way. I get to connect with everyone that has my books," she explained.
And perhaps the most satisfying gauge of the books' success is seeing her daughter, now 5, finish the series.
"It's just been really fulfilling to see my original reason for doing it, so that she could have beautiful books that she could look at, and correct books to learn how to read that were engaging and would build her confidence," Murdock said.
For more information, visit dashintoreading.com.