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Children's Book Art Attracts Collectors

Illustrators discover a growing demand for their original artwork among parents, librarians, and institutions

WHEN Elizabeth Stone opened an art gallery almost four years ago on Gallery Row in Birmingham, Mich., her shop was considered somewhat unconventional. That was because Ms. Stone sold original lithographs and illustrations from children's books.

"One of the stumbling blocks was having the galleries in my area accept illustration as an art form," Ms. Stone says. "I've worked hard to overcome the stereotype that illustration isn't as good as fine art. Now all the galleries have accepted me as a fine art gallery."

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The 100 works on display in her gallery include pictures from artists such as Peter Parnall ("Way to Start a Day"), Jon Agee ("The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau"), and Gennady Spirin, whom Stone describes as one of the hottest new children's book illustrators, and who recently earned a gold medal award from the Society of Illustrators for "Boots and the Glass Mountain."

Pictures in Stone's gallery fetch between $100 and $6,000 and are being snatched up by a clientele that ranges from parents to professionals to libraries. Sales are "really good," she says. "I've even had business when the other galleries on my block didn't."

The children's book industry is booming. Publishers churn out more than 5,000 new titles a year, according to Publishers Weekly. While many parents buy the books for their kids, a growing number of adults are purchasing books for the artwork alone. And artists are finding a thriving market for their original illustrations, which are being recognized as fine art and are appearing in galleries, museums, and bookstores.

"In the past, there was a feeling that children's book art was highly decorative, kind of cute, and not to be taken seriously," says Wendell Minor, an illustrator for such nature-oriented children's books as "Sierra," "Mojave," and "Heartland." "But in the last 10 years it has been an art form that has really grown tremendously ... and it's drawing in more and more serious artists."

The baby boomers and their kids are creating the demand for quality children's books and artwork, those in the industry say.

"When boomers go out to buy books for their kids they're looking for books that are unique," Mr. Minor says. "Traditionally children's books have been selling through libraries ... and it's been a fairly staid market. That has changed." Now, publishers sell mainly through bookstores to a broader customer base, he says.

Advances in technology have also had an effect on the proliferation of children's books, making them less costly to produce.

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"It's easy to do full color now for everything whereas 10, 15 years ago there was a lot of ... color separation because it was too expensive to do full-color work," says Diane Dillon, who with her husband, Leo, has won numerous awards, including two Caldecotts, for their children's book illustrations. "It has allowed for more complicated art."

Original illustrations are popular because they're affordable compared to some of the "outrageous" prices other fine-art pieces command, Ms. Dillon says. The Dillons sell their work for between $1,000 to $2,400. Most contemporary pieces on the market average about $1,500, although some artists have sold pictures for $12,000, Stone says.

"People also have a very personal reaction to the work. They love it, their children love it," Dillon adds.

Currently two galleries sell children's book art: Elizabeth Stone Gallery and Every Picture Tells a Story in Hollywood, Calif. Books of Wonder in Beverly Hills and New York is both a children's bookstore and gallery.

A number of children's book art collections exist around the United States; many are in university or children's museums.

The most extensive collection can be found at the University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio, where Jerry Mallett directs the Mazza Collection Gallery.

Dr. Mallett, who started acquiring original works in 1982, now has 336 pieces, ranging from older works to contemporary illustrations by artists of diverse ethnic backgrounds. But these pictures do more than hang on the wall.

"We are the only teaching gallery in the world specializing in artists from children's books," Mallett says. One of its programs includes a nine-week intensive course for grades K-12, where kids study the art and read the literature. Artists represented in the collection often visit and teach.

Response to the collection has been "phenomenal," Mallett says. "People are terribly interested in children's books."

The growing number of shows and museum exhibits reflect the fascination with children's book art. Museums "are beginning to accept it as an art form. It's become more acceptable for a respectable museum" to put on such an exhibit, Mallett says.

Mr. Minor, who has been illustrating for two decades, says people have collected book illustrations for years. "There is a tradition and value attached to this work that maybe the general public hasn't been aware of," he says. But now "it's really become a medium for a finer quality of expression not seen since, say, the golden age of illustration nearly 75 years ago."

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