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Trompe l' il Picture Book Captures Booksellers' Attention
-- 8/10/98
Joan Steiner's debut offers a series of visual double-takes

The first inkling Little, Brown had that Joan Steiner's forthcoming Look-Alikes (Sept.) might be a hit came last spring during the Bologna Book Fair. "The response was incredible," said executive editor Megan Tingley. "People went crazy for it."

When the same thing happened at BEA, where one of Steiner's dioramas for the book was on display and 1000 copies of the picture book were given away, Little, Brown quickly added an additional 50,000 copies to its initial 75,000 print run.

What has been riveting viewers and drawing kudos from both booksellers and critics alike is Steiner's artwork. Her intricate three-dimensional dioramas tweak everyday places such as a hotel lobby, a playground and a city street, through the use of trompe l' il. In Steiner's parallel visual universe, broccoli might double as a tree, a stack of compact discs as a skyscraper or cinnamon sticks as the pilings on a pier.

"It's fantastic!" said Anne Ginkel, owner of Hobbit Hall in Roswell, Ga., who caught the sneak preview at BEA and has subsequently placed a "big order" for the book, which retails for $12.95. Chauni Haslet of Seattle's All for Kids Books &Music agreed. "I absolutely love it!" she said. "It's such an amazing art form. It's going to be a blow-away."

Both booksellers noted the book's crossover potential, which Little, Brown is capitalizing on by featuring it in both their adult and children's fall catalogues. "It hits many different age levels," Ginkel said. "I love the whole retro aspect of it. It's good for visual acuity, for looking at certain shapes and trying to define them, and it's also good as a jumping-off point for cultural conversation. I can see a parent or grandparent sitting a child on their lap with the book and talking about the things they remember."

It's also a book that has generated a large amount of advance buzz. Look-Alikes has already been named a best book of the year by both Parents and Child, and Steiner will be featured on an forthcoming segment of CBS This Morning. One of her dioramas (the Sweet Shop) will be on display this month in the windows of two different Rizzoli Bookstores in New York City, the Children's Book-of-the-Month Club and Junior Library Guild have both bought book club rights, and foreign rights have been picked up by Denmark and Brazil, with deals pending in seven other countries. First serial rights have been sold to Nickelodeon magazine, and Town and Country will mention the book in its August issue. Interest has also been expressed by several other magazines as well.

Career Twists and Turns

Steiner's road to success as a visual artist was a bit circuitous. A graduate of Barnard College (she has a degree in philosophy), Steiner is a self-taught artist. "I'd always loved art, but I was really naive, and I thought you needed to be a brilliant painter to have a career in art," she said.

She began in the 1980s in the field of crafts, and even then had a penchant for trompe l' il, creating such wearable art as a hat that looked like a fishing boat, whose veil resembled a fishing net.

According to Steiner, her pieces were very popular, "but they were so labor-intensive that even though the line was successful, I was broke!" she recalled, noting that an NEA fellowship she received at the time helped. As a result, she decided to move into illustration, and after some initial trouble breaking in, eventually began to get work. "My first assignment was to do a Main Street for the cover of a trade organization's calendar," she said.

She also pitched her work to Games magazine, who liked her style but told her she needed to bring in a game or puzzle element, which she quickly did, creating a General Store scene out of everyday objects that readers could identify.

The piece brought her more work at magazines like Sesame Street and Nickelodeon, as well as the cover of the New York Times' New York City Marathon supplement, but overall, Steiner didn't find much call for her three-dimensional artwork in the world of magazine illustration and was still just scraping by financially. Finally, in 1994, her friend Walter Wick (photographer of the popular I Spy series), who had photographed some of her work for magazines, urged her to think about doing books, and suggested she contact Amy Berkower, an agent at Writers House.

When Berkower saw Steiner's work, "I flipped," she said. "It's rare to see something so unique and fresh." Before Berkower even had a chance to put a pitch together, Tingley at Little, Brown happened to stop by and saw Steiner's artwork on her desk. Tingley "begged" Berkower to let her take the artwork back to Boston to show her colleagues. "I called Amy back with an offer the next day," Tingley said.

Viking Studio was also interested, according to Berkower, but wanted to publish it as an adult book. "Joan had a vision of it as a children's book, though, and chose that path," Berkower said.

This was in 1994, and despite the speed with which the concept was snapped up, the actual creation of the book was "a long haul," said Steiner, taking some three and a half years from start to finish. The work is painstaking and slow, with each scene taking several months to create. "I start with a few keystone objects," she explained, and then she fleshes out the details. For instance, a living room scene was sparked by her notion of using lasagna noodles for draperies and an autumn leaf for a fire in the fireplace.

From there, Steiner, who used to work at home in Claverack, N.Y., but has since moved to a studio 10 minutes away ("I use a lot of edibles, and my cats were always eating the artwork"), sifts through "boxes and boxes of stuff" that she collects on frequent shopping expeditions to hardware stores, thrift shops, art supply stores and the like for possibilities, then lays everything out on a table and starts "playing with it."

Her careful attention to detail has paid off. In addition to the two-book contract she has with Little, Brown for further titles in the Look-Alikes series, Milton-Bradley has licensed worldwide rights and will launch the property with eight puzzles at Toy Fair next February, and Berkower just closed a deal with Workman for a Look-Alikes calendar. And a Look-Alikes sequel is in the works.

Steiner is shyly pleased about her transformation into a children's book creator. "The ultimate test, of course, is what happens in the bookstores," she said. "But it's very exciting.
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