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Meet Mentor Deb Pilutti

Deb Pilutti is the author and illustrator of Ten Rules of Being a Superhero, The Secrets of Ninja School, and Bear and Squirrel are Friends…Yes, Really! She is the illustrator of Idea Jar (written by WWTS mentor Adam Lehrhaupt), The Twelve Days of Christmas in Michigan (written by Susan Collins Thoms), and The City Kid and The Suburb Kid (written by Linda Bleck). We are thrilled to have Deb and her amazing art as part of Writing with the Stars.

As a former toy designer, what is your favorite toy or a toy you wish you had created?

Maybe not a favorite, but I loved poring over the back of comic books for the kitschy toys that were promoted, like Sea Monkeys! The ad for them was amazing. If only it were true. The Sea Monkeys had faces and hair ribbons or ties. You only needed to add water and you would have a tank full of little buddies. I believed every word and sent away for them with such hope, and I was thrilled when the package arrived. I diligently followed the instructions and looked for signs of life each morning. Much later, I learned that Sea Monkeys are desiccated brine shrimp that become reanimated with water. Mine did not. I’m not going to go into detail about the despair I felt when I had a tankful of nothing—it’s just too sad. But there’s a good chance I would order them again if I saw an ad…

You are drawn to humor in your work. Besides researching Bugs Bunny cartoons, what are your favorite characters, books, movies, comedians, etc. that define your type of humor?

I enjoy subtle or dry humor, and misdirection, which can be difficult to use when creating for a young audience. Ian Falconer does it masterfully in the OLIVIA series. While I did read quite a bit as a child, I also watched copious amounts of TV. Especially cartoons. This was once a source of shame, until I realized that I received a master class in humor, pacing and illustration from the artists at Warner Brothers studios and Jay Ward animations. My sensibilities were defined by episodes of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales and of course that one with the singing frog! The humor in these programs ranged from slapstick to sophisticated—I definitely did not always catch the joke the first time around.

Is there any difference in your process when you illustrate another author’s text versus illustrating your own?

My process involves a lot of sitting and staring. It’s not glamorous, but it works for me. The idea for my own story may begin with a drawing, but I won’t start sketching the dummy until after the story is buttoned down, which is similar to the way I work with another author’s text. The difference is that while creating my own stories, I often end up cutting a lot of text or making edits during the dummy phase because I can use a character or situation to advance the plot.

Bear and Squirrel are Friends…Yes, Really! is a favorite of mine as I love subversive humor. How did these characters and plot begin?

Thanks so much! I was attending a remote retreat in Michigan with a couple of writer friends when the idea for the story was conceived. We would write in a common space during the day and return to our individual tiny cabins in the woods at night. The setting was peaceful and we would see deer and squirrels and other wildlife out the window. My overactive imagination wondered if there were bears snuffling around the cabin while I tried to sleep. I never saw any, but during one writing session, I was doodling and ended up with a bear and squirrel on my page. I loved the dichotomy of the two characters and wondered if they could be friends, and what might happen if they were.

Who are your favorite artists or influences?

I love the humor and candor in Maira Kalman’s work. She taps into relatable feelings and emotions. I’m drawn to the sparse and graphic illustrations of Mary Blair and Alice and Martin Provensen. They are pros at distilling images to the simplest form, something I try to work toward. Eyvind Earle created ethereal landscapes and concept art for many of the Disney films. His use of color and value is illuminating.

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators? 

Work harder than necessary. In an effort to grow, I started paying attention to the work habits of artists and professionals whose work I admired. One of the things I noticed is that they often will rework a piece of art or a story that I think is already pretty great. Their art director and editor may be perfectly happy with it. I would be happy with it. But the artist is not satisfied and keeps pushing and self-editing. And when I see the finished product, I realize they were right. It is even better.  

Can you tell us a bit about your next book, Old Rock (is not boring)?

I’m just finishing up the final art! Old Rock came from a doodle. I drew a picture of a rock that I thought was funny and wondered if I could write a story about this character. Then I became stuck, because ROCKS DON’T DO ANYTHING, they just sit there. It seemed like a boring premise. Well, that’s what the story is about. Some of Old Rock’s friends, Tall Pine, Spotted Beetle and Hummingbird, think she’s boring. Old Rock reveals her own surprising story (hint: it’s not boring).

What other projects are you currently working on?

I’m also illustrating a sequel to Ten Rules of Being a Superhero. It’s called Ten Steps to Flying Like a Superhero. I had so much fun with the characters from the first book that they are back for another adventure. Lava Boy’s superhero toy, Captain Magma, wants to fly more than anything. They devise a plan, which does not go as anticipated.

Thank you, Deb, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer/illustrator in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.