Thirty years ago, Northampton fine arts gallery owner Richard Michelson took a risk.
He decided he wanted to open an exhibit at his gallery of illustrations from children's literature.
He was cautioned by other professionals — and even by some of the artists he represented — that the reputation of R. Michelson Galleries would suffer.
Michelson is the first to admit he once shared that view -- that children's book illustrations did not belong side by side with so-called serious art.
He was first exposed to the world of children's book illustrations a few years earlier when printmaker Barry Moser, one of the gallery's first artists, had agreed to illustrate a children's book.
Michelson was skeptical, almost derisive. "What are you going to do, draw cute little bunny rabbits?" he recalls asking Moser.
But for Moser's next solo show at the gallery, Michelson hung illustrations from "Jump on Over! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit and His Family," alongside Moser's works of engravings and portraits.
The experience led Michelson to take a closer look at the world of children's literature.
"I discovered that when they were good, [children's books] were the perfect marriage of art and poetry," he said. "I fell in love."
Today, R. Michelson Galleries is a champion of children's book illustration, representing the most recognized artists in the field. In the last three decades, gallery artists have garnered 16 Caldecott Medals and 35 Caldecott Honor awards, the most prestigious recognition of American picture books. And Michelson, who served two terms as Northampton's poet laureate, is now himself the author of nearly 20 children's books.
"I discovered that when they were good, [children's books] were the perfect marriage of art and poetry. I fell in love."Richard Michelson
This month, the gallery opens its 30th Annual Children's Illustration Celebration (beginning Nov. 10) that showcases the work of more than 30 artists from across the region and beyond whose books — from classics to contemporary — are the bedtime stories, schoolroom standards and mainstays of libraries everywhere.
This year's exhibit features the art of the late Virginia Lee Burton, including illustrations from "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel," one of several of Burton's classics that has endured for some 80 years. The popular story was inspired by the Massachusetts town of West Newbury. It's the first time some of Burton's art will be on view to the public, Michelson said.
Burton, a Boston area Caldecott-winning artist and author, as well as a noted designer, was a trailblazer in the world of children's books. Her art "jumps off the page," Michelson said in a recent phone conversation.
"Her line is just incredible. It's intricate and it flows beautifully," he observed. "She brought movement to her compositions. That wasn't done before."
The work of Ekua Holmes, a recipient of a Caldecott Honor and the 2013 NAACP Image Award, and Grace Lin, a western Massachusetts artist who has garnered a Newbery Medal, will also be on display.
Michelson points to Maurice Sendak as someone whose work transcended the border between fine art and illustration. He marvels at the beauty and power of works by artist Jerry Pinkney, and the late Mordicai Gerstein, who died in September. "Every piece is like a painting," he said.
Seeing the illustrations apart from the book is illuminating, agrees R.W. Alley, a notable children's illustrator also represented at Michelson's gallery, who for the last 20 years has been the artist of the Paddington Bear books.
"It's the same, but different from the published art," Alley observed in a phone conversation from his studio in Rhode Island. In the original artwork, "You can see the artist's handwriting, the scratchiness of the illustration ... the layers of paint," he said. When artwork is reproduced for a book, its texture disappears.
Michelson and Alley both said children's literature has broadened for the better. There's more diversity racially and culturally, in both content and among artists and authors — though it's still not enough, Michelson said.
Looking back, Michelson has witnessed the growth of a market for children's book illustration. "Little by little, as the years went by, we started developing a clientele," he said.
On the upper end, an original Sendak or Burton can sell for more than $100,000. But the range of prices for most of the art in the exhibit is between $1,500 and $3,500, Michelson wrote in an email. Some are available in the hundreds.
Michelson is proud to have played a leading role in widening the view of children's book illustration. Three decades ago, there were only a small handful of other galleries that included some children's illustrations. Today, he's the go-to expert and has curated 30 shows of children's illustrations in museums and colleges across the country. The illustrations in his gallery are not set apart from other works of art, Michelson pointed out.
He's also seen western Massachusetts become an influential ecosystem in the world of children's illustration, boasting the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
"Art that we grow up with informs our entire life," Michelson reflected. "Children deserve the best art and writing. I think of picture books as museums to hold in our hands."
The 30th Annual Children's Illustration Celebration begins on Sunday, Nov. 10 (with a reception from 4 to 6 p.m.) in Northampton. The exhibit is open through Jan. 15.