Tag Archive for A Conversation with series

A Conversation with Deb Pilutti, Author/Illustrator of “OLD ROCK (is not boring)”


I fell in love with a new picture book this year, Old Rock (is not boring). It was created by an author and illustrator, Deb Pilutti, who I didn’t know much about. So as a curious admirer, I invited Deb over for a chat. And lo, here she comes now . . .



Welcome, Deb. Normally I’d offer a guest a big comfy bean bag chair, but in preparation for your visit I’ve had a glacial erratic, originally deposited in the Adirondacks, hauled into the spacious offices of James Preller Dot Com. So, yeah, have a seat on the rock.


For the record: This glacial erratic can be found in Scotland, it is not the rock Deb Pilutti is currently sitting on for this interview in the spacious offices of James Preller Dot Com. It’s just an example. Carry on!


Thank you. And I’m glad you mentioned glacial erratic! It’s a term I became acquainted with while writing Old Rock.

Yes, erratics resonate with me. There’s even a chapter titled “Erratics” in my novel, Blood Mountain. It serves as a metaphor, in that scene, for being left behind. Anyway, I understand that your book began with a doodle?

Yes — I drew a picture of a rock with a face on it in my sketchbook and kept coming back to it. I wondered if I could write a story about the character, and then I quickly thought, Well, that would be a boring story. Rocks just sit there! And that became the concept. Old Rock’s friends think life as a rock must be very boring.



On a secondary note, I often walk in the woods around Michigan with my husband and dog. Sometimes, we come upon a giant boulder, with no other rocks or boulders around, and I wonder how it got there. Short answer: glaciers.

Is that a normal working method for you? I’m always curious about writer-illustrators. How does that internal tug of war between artist and writer work? Bernard Waber once told that he thought the writer in him tried to please the illustrator. Who’s in charge inside your head?



Good question, I’m never sure who’s in charge. I work both ways, either by starting with an idea, or from a sketch or doodle. Whatever takes hold, really, because it has to be something that is going to be engaging and keep my interest for 32 pages and more than a year’s worth of work.

There’s so much mystique attached to that eureka moment: getting an idea. Oooooh, magical. But the important thing is to roll up your sleeves and work that idea. In your case, a rock as a character seemed appealing and original. But hardly a book.

True. And that’s what initially steered me away from the idea. But then I started asking questions and doing research. The more I learned about rocks and how they were formed and then thought about the history of the earth and what a rock might have witnessed during that time (EVERYTHING), the more the story developed.



Most young people, and many adults, have an uncertain grasp of historical time. Ten years ago seems like ancient history. That’s one thing I love about Old Rock. It subtly brings the reader into geologic time . . . earth time . . . rock time.

It is hard to get a handle on thinking about such an enormous span of time, but many people are familiar with the dinosaur periods or the fact that glaciers once covered much of the earth. It’s amazing to imagine that the rock that I’m sitting on now might have been a resting spot for a T. rex!


You thank two people, Larry Lemke and Lacey Knowles, for sharing their knowledge of the natural world. At what point did you bring experts into the process?

Larry Lemke is a geologist, and Lacey Knowles is an evolutionary biologist, and fortunately for me, they are also my neighbors. While it is a story about a talking rock, I wanted everything that occurs in the story to be plausible. I talked with Larry early in the process, when I was deciding what type of rock to use. Originally, I had Old Rock starting as a blob or lava, but quickly decided that a volcanic rock wouldn’t be right. I decided on a metamorphic rock, like Gneiss, so that Old Rock could develop underground and eventually be unearthed during a volcanic explosion. I knew that rocks don’t erupt out of volcanic vent the way lava does, but Larry let me know that it
was possible that a rock could be blasted, along with part of the volcano, during a pyroclastic explosion. Lacey studies insects, so I asked her about beetles and also the type of plants that might be around during the Jurassic and Cretacious periods. She also works at the University of Michigan Natural History Museum, which was a good place for research. Once I had a final version, I showed it to both again.

I get the impression that being in nature is important to you.

It is. When I was young, my family camped. It was an economical way for a family of 7 to travel, but it was also fun and a great way to see the country. I continued camping and hiking with my own children. Michigan is a wonderful place to get out and enjoy nature.

Where did you grow up, Deb? What was your childhood like? 

I grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana, a midwestern college town. My father was a high school English teacher and writer and my mother was an art teacher, but stayed home after she had children. My brothers and sisters and I did plenty of art projects at home with her. I had a lot of free time and liked to read and draw and play outside, but I also watched a copious amount of t.v. I credit Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Chuck Jones and Jay Ward as my first teachers in design, storytelling and animation.

And then, one day, you decided to become a hot-shot children’s book author?

Hahahahaha . . . oh sorry, is that a question?

I can’t tell anymore. 

It was a meandering route. I spent most of my adult professional life as a graphic designer. I got to work on some really fun projects, like being on a team that designed the environmental graphics for Cartoon Village, a Warner Brothers Theme Park that featured . . . Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and company. One of the amazing things about that assignment was that there was a whole backstory for the area and rides. It became my job to immerse myself in the world of the characters and design graphics for them. And I KNEW these characters. I understood their stories. I had basically trained my whole life for it. The better I understood their stories, the better the design. The same is true in making children’s books.

I like that. You weren’t mindlessly blobbing around in front of the television as a kid, you were studying for a career! 

It took me a while to figure out that making books was what I wanted to do. When I did, I spent time learning about the business, like how to make a book dummy, how to submit. Admittedly, it took longer than I anticipated.

Well, it was worth the wait, because you are making terrific books. What’s next? Do you have a new book coming out?

Ten Steps to Flying Like a Superhero came out in November from Macmillan/Holt. It’s a companion to Ten Rules to Being a Superhero. Lava Boy tries to teach his superhero action figure how to fly. It doesn’t always go as planned. It was fun to revisit the characters and develop a couple of new ones. I’m not gonna lie, it has been really difficult for me to create over the last year. I’ve got a few ideas for new projects and I’ve been feeling more optimistic lately.

I have faith that those ideas will come. Oh, hey, almost forgot. You have a border collie! Our rescue dog, Echo, is part border collie, part anybody’s guess, probably Pit. So smart and energetic. We got lucky.


Here’s JP’s dog, Echo, taken in December while out snowshoeing (the author, not the dog).


Aren’t dogs the best? Our last dog was a quirky border collie named Wilson. Right now we have a quirky Australian Shepard named Tater. She’s an energetic rescue dog and needs a LOT of walks. I can’t imagine going through a pandemic without her.

Deb’s dog, Tater.


Thanks for coming over, Deb! It was great to meet one of the new stars in the children’s book galaxy. Keep it up!

Thanks for the hospitality, it was a pleasure!


Deb Pilutti keeps up a snazzy website. Also, you can learn more about her by using this amazing resource I just learned about called Google. How did we ever survive before?







As for me, James Preller, I’m the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent picture book, illustrated by the Mary GrandPre, is titled All Welcome Here. And coming this Spring, look for my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!



Fairy Houses & Creative Learning at Home: A Conversation with Author and Children’s Librarian, Liza Gardner Walsh



“I miss my students.

I miss putting books directly in kid’s hands.

I am heartbroken

that we don’t get to finish the year together.” 

Liza Gardner Walsh


Liza Gardner Walsh embodies two of my favorite things in one person: no, she’s not peanut butter and jelly. She’s even better. Liza is an author and a children’s librarian. She’s also a certified, fully-authorized, bonafide expert on all things fairies. Liza visits today with some insights about getting kids outdoors, interacting with nature, using their creativity and imaginations, to make learning fun. Let’s meet her.



Liza, it’s nice to connect with you again! Usually we only see each other at the glorious Warwick Children’s Book Festival. I was very happy to come across an article featuring you, “How to Build a Fairy House.” The reporter, Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News, did an excellent job. It inspired me and I hope it might inspire parents, too. Let me quote the intro:

Fairy house building is a creative outdoor activity that can expand the imagination and bring to life the small things in nature that are easy to overlook. All you need is a small outdoor space and a few natural materials. Then — taking as much time as you want — construct a small home, fit for a fairy, frog or any other small creature that comes to mind.

This zero-cost activity is great for kids, families and even adults who are looking for ways to have fun in their own backyards. And right now, as people stay at home and practice social distancing during this stressful time, fairy house building may be just the thing to take people’s minds off the pandemic — even if it’s just for a few minutes.


Why do you think some children are so fascinated by the fairy world? 

This is the hardest question of all but I think this fascination with fairies taps into our innate “sense of wonder” as Rachel Carson coined it.  There is this immediate flood of curiosity that informs the magic of this hobby. Will the fairies come? Will they leave a surprise? What do they look like? Will they like my house? Do they take care of the world? Are they watching us as we build? Seeing the wide-eyed wonder and amazing willingness of children to take the leap into the imagination and the unknown is so incredibly rejuvenating. It celebrates that part of childhood that we as children’s book writers are so connected to and work so hard to intuit in our writing. And it reinforces all the good, trust, wonder, curiosity, consideration, persistence, patience, and laughter!

I love the idea for that activity, particularly in relation to these times, when schools are closed and the focus has shifted to online learning.

I have been watching kids and families make these little houses and worlds for years now and I am always amazed at how much creativity is unleashed. Every single creation is different. One of the premiere benefits is this sense of open-ended play because there are no step-by-step instructions like Lego kits. The materials that kids collect set the parameters. Another benefit is that it completely captures kids’ imaginations and it isn’t a one and done kind of a thing. You can wake up and check on your house and then go back and add another room or a playground. The next day, you can leave a note for the fairies or make a pathway to your sibling’s house. The possibilities are endless. I also like that kids can do this completely on their own and it becomes a way that they can be engaged safely and create a whole world of their own making.


I like how so many learning opportunities open up naturally. It’s a perfect jumping-off point for interdisciplinary activities: cooking, writing, reading, science (nature studies), engineering . . . 

I would say, though, that my all time favorite benefit is patience and perseverance. There are always problems to solve when building things out of materials that aren’t all the same or made with straight lines. Things fall apart when the wind blows or your dog might knock the whole thing down in one fell swoop. But a true fairy house builder will pick up the pieces and start again.

You work as a school librarian. How have you been adjusting to our “lockdown” reality in that capacity?

It’s been way harder than I ever imagined. I miss my students. I miss putting books directly in kid’s hands. I am heartbroken that we don’t get to finish the year together. Thank goodness for technology but zoom meetings are not the same. I do appreciate the creativity that distance learning is forcing on us and I have had some really fun connections with kids through video and zoom but I do spend a lot of my time worrying about our families and the isolation and economic challenges they are facing.



I had a friend complain about her disappointment with “learning-from-home-time” so far, the pile up of schoolwork her girls have received from each class. I’m certainly not here to criticize teachers, who are working very hard to figure out this brave new world. I do feel that our current situation presents new opportunities for creative, explorative, interdisciplinary learning. The idea isn’t so much to recreate what happens in the classroom — we can’t do that, especially on the social level — but maybe in some respects we can do something even better. 

Our principle has said the whole time that we are building the plane as we are flying it but I do appreciate the model we are using. We are offering activities, enrichment, and support but not requiring it. We have to keep in mind equity. Sometimes, worksheets are a benign way of making things accessible and easily transmissible through digital means. But I completely agree that this can be an opportunity for a paradigm shift. Kids are always learning. Literacy, math, science, art, movement are all so enmeshed in our everyday lives. I’m hoping that kids are building forts, planting gardens, watching birds, writing letters, and working on engines. Fairy House building is another way that kids can create, engineer, and collaborate. You can write a story about what happens in that house after you leave it. The key is following the curiosity and seeing what emerges. That is something that we don’t often have time to do in the public school day schedule and now is the perfect time to make it happen.

Can you give us a few quick tips? No one wants to build a house that displeases the fairies.

Of course! First, you need to find a good spot that will be safe from dogs, protected from wind, and that has some support. Bases of trees, stumps, and rock walls are all great. Next, grab a bag or a box and gather your materials. Fairy houses should be made from all natural materials. There are so many good things to collect like acorn caps, bark that has fallen off a tree, sticks, rocks, shells, dried beans, dried milkweed husks, the list goes on.

Once you have all your materials, you can begin to assemble your structure. People usually opt for a lean-to or a teepee type structure but the sky is the limit. And once you have a good house built, you can then work on adding some furniture to welcome your small guests. Fairies are very fond of naps so a bed is an essential. Tables and chairs with acorn cap bowls are also a nice way to welcome fairies. The final touches can include pathways, playgrounds, pools, and whatever else you can dream up. After you have built your house, pay attention for signs that the fairies have visited by looking for tiny footprints, fairy dust, and bent or torn leaves. But the most important advice of all is to have fun!

By the way, how tall are fairies, exactly?

I have “heard” they are about 2-3 inches tall, roughly. But some people describe it as a shimmer of light , almost like an orb, or a little puffball hovering by a flower.

So you’ve never . . . ?

No, I have never seen one. And I’m okay with that!

Well, I’m ready to build a fairy house right now. I only wish I still had a six-year-old at home with me. My Maggie, now 19, used to make them long ago. I wonder if she encountered any, I’ll have to ask. Do you have a new book in the works?

I have the last in the seasonal fairy series illustrated by Hazel Mitchell, The Fall Fairy Gathering, which is due out this summer. And I am working on a historical fiction novel but at a snail’s pace!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Liza. Be safe, stay home, and protect the vulnerable.

Thank you, James, for all that you are doing for kids, teachers, and families and for continuing to write such great stories.


Liza Gardner Walsh is a school librarian and an author of more than a dozen books. She’s worked as a preschool teacher and a high school English teacher, writing tutor, and museum educator. Liza lives with her family in Camden, Maine. And, obviously, she’s terrific.