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  • Julie Dillemuth

Getting serious about a writing career

Author Julie Dillemuth
photo by Renate von Mangoldt

In 2009, out of the blue I had an idea for a children’s story. I grabbed a notebook and pen and started writing. What came out of this burst of inspiration was a rhyming poem, a day-in-the-life of a baby, and the unique thing about it, to my mind, was that it was chock full of spatial language (“I start my day getting up out of bed / I put on my shirt, over my head” is how it began). I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. And I wrote it with a purpose.

In graduate school, my specialty was spatial cognition, or how people think about space, learn/navigate an environment, use maps, etc. Something that fascinated me was kids’ spatial thinking skills and how and when spatial thinking develops. A lot of the things we do without too much thought — packing a bag so that everything fits inside, driving a commute, using a diagram to put together furniture, for example — rely on spatial thinking skills. We generally aren’t formally taught these things; we seem to pick them up along the way as we grow up and experience the world. But of course, some people are better at these sorts of things than others — think of sense of direction, using a map successfully, remembering where you left your keys, moving a sofa or table through a doorway, attempting (cursing?) that IKEA purchase with “some assembly required.” I am definitely one of the “others”, with a hopeless sense of direction (though I can always remember where things are, so I’m not entirely devoid of spatial competence!).

What if, I thought, I could foster spatial thinking skills in babies and kids through fun, engaging picture books? My day-in-the-life poem full of spatial language would expose babies to all these wonderful prepositions and other positional words, and give parents rhyming phrases that would stick in their minds after so many readings, which they could spontaneously recite while doing those everyday things with their babies. It wasn’t important that babies understand all the words, but rather hearing the language from an early age would perhaps prime them for when, later on, they learned the meanings of these positional words, like “above, between, on, under, through,” etc.

That poem, like most first manuscripts, still sits in the virtual drawer after many rejections, but the idea behind it, helping to lay foundations for spatial thinking skills in kids through fun books, has become one of my primary goals as a writer, a sort of mission statement for me. Not that that is all that I will do with my writing for kids, because there are all kinds of stories germinating in my mind, but it definitely fills a niche, and one that I feel is important.

After completing the draft of my day-in-the-life story, I began to figure out how to get it published, and how to write more stories. I dived in to learning about the children’s book industry and market, and discovered that I had a lot to learn about story craft (I wrote another story that I thought was awesome, only to realize later that it was actually excruciatingly boring). But this was something I was passionate about, and the more I learned the more I found that I loved writing picture books and magazine stories and poems. The community of kidlit writers that I found through SCBWI and social media were the kindest, most supportive, and most interesting people, and it wasn’t long before I knew I finally found the career for me.

2012 was a pivotal year. That spring, I had a poem accepted to Highlights Hello! magazine. My first sale! It was so gratifying, to hear a “yes!” amid the rejections I was racking up, which were approaching triple digits. Then that summer, I got a phone call from Highlights magazine that left me nearly speechless, when the voice on the other end said, “Congratulations, your story won our Fiction Contest!” and, “How would you like your prize, $1000 cash or a free Workshop?” Well, if the sale of my poem was a boost of confidence in my abilities as a writer, this news was complete validation that I was on the right track and that I could be successful at this writing thing. Also that summer, Odyssey magazine accepted my proposal for a nonfiction magazine story, for their upcoming issue with the theme of “Lost!” The sense-of-direction theme fit perfectly with my area of expertise. By the end of that year, I was a published author! I had writing credentials! Like many other successful writers, I had broken in via the magazine market (highly recommend).

But my real passion was picture books. And I was absolutely determined to get my picture books published. I took more courses, workshops, sent more queries, kept writing.

And one year later, just before Thanksgiving of 2013, after rejection #82 had graced my inbox but before #83, I was offered my first contract for a picture book, from Magination Press, for my story LUCY IN THE CITY.


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