Graphic artist/illustrator/author Deb Pilutti spent the early quarantine days organizing and clearing out her basement, creating a larger studio for her artwork. But the porches, not the basements, initially attracted her family to the Eberwhite neighborhood.
“We came here by accident,” Pilutti says. “We lived a half mile away and we often walked downtown to Washtenaw Dairy. When we passed this street, we admired the front porches and the way the neighbors were always out socializing.”
In 1994, they moved into a charming circa-1928 house with a big front porch in the post-World War I neighborhood. “Our decision to move didn’t affect my husband’s commute [Tom is a Ford engineer in Dearborn], but we decided this was the way we wanted to live,” she says. “It turned out to be a great place to raise a family and participate in Ann Arbor’s rich downtown life.”
Now that the children have scattered to D.C. and San Francisco, the Piluttis occasionally discuss downsizing, but they aren’t ready to pack. “We like to walk with a purpose–and we can easily walk to the library, Michigan Theater, the restaurants and bars and bookstores downtown. That’s reason enough to stay.”
Trained in graphic design at Purdue, Pilutti worked in Chicago and St. Louis before moving to Ann Arbor so her husband could attend grad school. She created the website for Ann Arbor-based olliebollen.com, becoming a partner and designing some of the toys and children’s products it sold. But she dreamed of combining her love of reading with her passion for illustrating.
A chance encounter with children’s writer Nancy Shaw led her to membership in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Then a mutual friend introduced her to a local manuscript critique group for children’s writers. She dipped her toe in the waters of children’s publishing, juggling painting with her freelance graphic design assignments. And then one day she told herself she had to treat children’s books as a full-time job–“but it was definitely a leap of faith to go out on my own.”
Her ideas come in myriad ways. She grins and explains, “It’s a very messy process that involves a lot of staring and thinking.” Her books often start with random sketches and doodles, until one catches her eye and inspires a story. “I ask questions and explore topics I like or think are funny. I’m often drawn to the idea of unlikely friendships.”
The results? Eight books and two awards: she was a finalist for the Michigan Great Reads Great Books Award (for The Secrets of Ninja School) and won the International Picture Book Show Award (for Idea Jar).
Covid-19’s lockdown gave her the time and energy to create a basement studio, but Pilutti says she’s not sure how being at home all the time will affect her career or the publishing industry. “My days haven’t changed remarkably, except my husband now works at home. And,” she adds, smiling again, “before the quarantine, much of my staring was done in coffee shops.
“We’ll see changes in publishing after this, I’m sure. But one thing will remain the same: we still need stories. Lots of stories. Good stories.”