Children's book art is on the verge of broader discovery as an unusually delightful segment of the world of illustration.
Joan Cavanaugh, a New Yorker who knows a great deal about the joy and wit, fantasy and imagination that go into the artwork for children's books, has already launched her own business to make originals of such illustrations more widely available to collectors.
During the past year she has represented and shown the work of several internationally known illustrators in a temporary gallery at her own home at 510 East 86th Street in Manhattan. By late fall she plans to be ensconced in a gallery on Madison Avenue, where she will exhibit and sell original artwork for children's books, limited-edition prints of some of the pieces, posters, and signed first-edition children's books.
At present, no other gallery in the US is dedicated to showing the work of contemporary illustrators. This is the niche Miss Cavanaugh hopes to fill.
Much of this art, she says, has been underexposed, undervalued, and largely neglected, because most of it is still in boxes under the artists' beds. Artists sometimes spend from two to five years preparing as many as 32 illustrations for a children's book; they themselves value their production as true works of art.
Some discerning publishers, editors, and art directors have been quietly purchasing these original illustrations over the past dozen years, when many top-flight artists have been attracted to the field.
Modern printing techniques, Miss Cavanaugh explains, allow artists to work in any style and with any medium - oil, watercolor on parchment, batik, tempera on fine paper, woodblock. Newer presses can pick up and render color and lines so exactly that the whole technology has, since the late 1960s, given impetus to artists who had not previously been working in the field. Many of these artists, such as Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg, Edward Gorey, and M. B. Goffstein are both writing and illustrating their own books. Their forerunners include such well-known names as Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway, Arthur Rackham, and N. C. Wyeth, but today's illustrators tend to be neither imitative nor derivative. Others, such as Michael Hague, W. W. Denslow, and the husband-and-wife teams of Alice and Martin Provensen, Leo and Diane Dillon, and Anita and Arnold Lobel, claim that preparing illustrations for children's literature enables them to be more creative than they have been before.
Many of these present-day illustrators are idealists who create their works out of love for the task with a sense of whimsy and fun, out of a desire to give children something of their best.
''I want to get this truly delightful original artwork that has been reproduced in books onto the market where people can enjoy it and where it can begin to accrue in value,'' Miss Cavanaugh explains. Prices for original works will probably range from $300 to $5,000 or more.
To do this, Miss Cavanaugh is drawing on her own rich experience. For 12 years she taught school in the Middle West. When she came to New York, she was hired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to help set up a children's shop that would sell books, games, toys, and graphics that were somewhat related to the museum's collections. In time, she was made manager of her own department, called Educational Marketing, and she selected and purchased every item sold in the children's shop and in the children's shop catalogues that are mailed all over the world.
In this job she developed the programs for the recorded-museum walking tours on cassette tapes. She also originated the idea for the portable-museum series, which involves packages of 40 slides and taped explanations of great exhibitions. This educational series has enabled people sitting in their own living rooms and in classrooms everywhere the opportunity to enjoy some of the vast treasures of the Metropolitan Museum.
Now Miss Cavanaugh spends two days a week as consulting manager of educational marketing for the museum, devoting the rest of her time to the new gallery project.
''I learned, as I worked with the 1,500 titles we sell at the museum,'' she comments, ''that children's books are for young and old alike. These exquisite books today are such a combination of storytelling, poetry, and pictorial art that they appeal to people of all ages. I often see mothers and grandmothers buying books for their children and grandchildren - and then purchasing more copies to give to their adult friends and family members. I have come to see that, in our mechanized society, adults are simply starved for a little fantasy. They, too, want to read folk tales and fairy tales, and about the heroic side of human nature.''
In further explanation of this adult love of children's books, Anthony Storr, an English writer who teaches at Oxford University, was quoted in The New York Times as saying: ''The world has become less and less mysterious. There are no more amazing countries left on which we can feast our imagination, and science has reduced our scope for fantasy. We love the magic element in fairy stories when we are young, and it seems we never really outgrow the need for it.''
In her work Miss Cavanaugh travels every year to the International Book Fair in Frankfurt, West Germany, to view the work of 5,000 publishers, to the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, West Germany, and to the Illustrators Fair in Bologna, Italy. She finds many committed publishers in both Europe and Japan who believe deeply in children's books and are willing to put great effort and care into developing the field.