There's no salamander in the Minneapolis studio where illustrator Steve Johnson and his wife, Lou Fancher, work, but there's plenty of whimsy there. Since 1989, the couple has turned out illustrations for three children's books: No star Nights (1989), written by Anna Smucker,The Frog Prince, Continued (1991), written by Jon Scieszka; and The Salamander Room. A fourth book Up North at the Cabin, written by Marsha Wilson Chall is due from Lothrop, Lee & Shepard next week.
''The end product is a real collaboration between the two of us,'' says Johnson, 31. He credits Fancher, 30, who designed The Salamander Room, with the idea of letting the drawings break out a picture's frame: When the hero, Brian, imagines transforming his room for his new pet, the pictures show birds flying beyond the borders and leaves spilling over them. ''Kids, when they're drawing or creating, like to draw outside the lines,'' Johnson explains.Fancher, who works full-time as the associate artistic director of a dance company in Minneapolis, would rather describe herself as Johnson's ''creative partner’’ than his book designer. Like the question-and-answer rapport between mother and son in The Salamander Room, the working relationship between husband and wife is an organic one. ''I tend to draw on the text and concentrate on words and analogies,'' says Fancher, ''whereas Steve thinks and remembers very visually.''
To make the shadowy world of the salamander look properly mysterious, Johnson and Fancher decided to use ''a lot of greens, blues, and purples'' and to suffuse objects with a warm, soft light.
Did Johnson ever have his own salamander? ''I had turtles, and I wanted to keep frogs,'' he says, ''but salamanders were a little bit slimy.''