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Illustrators get their day in the gallery

For artists such as Chris Van Allsburg, children's books are anything but child's play.

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Van Allsburg creates his books through a process of call and response between the images and words. "I have the picture in my imagination," he says. "Sometimes the words come to me, because I see something, and I see there may be a story somewhere that ties things together. The drawings talk back to the text."

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Van Allsburg's books appeal to children and adults, but he says the only audience he thinks about while creating is himself.

"The contemplation of an audience contaminates the artistic process," he says. "It's never for anybody but me. I don't think about kids. I don't think about adults. I just think about the story. You can't use two compasses to get to your destination."

Van Allsburg, a graduate of and later a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, recalls when his illustration students battled feelings of inferiority inflicted by the painting majors at the famous art school. The criticism was that illustrators aren't real artists because they produce work for the commercial market.

Revisions in critical thinking have broken down much of the old wall between "art" and "illustration." Artists once banished from scholarly consideration, from 19th-century salon painters to Norman Rockwell, have seen their aesthetic stock rise over the past decade.

"It all seems like art to me. I just call myself an artist," Van Allsburg says.

"I always told them," he says of his students, "William Blake was an illustrator. Even Michelangelo had to deal with a pope who acted like [an art director]. There are vast opportunities within what seem like the confining restraints of an assignment."

The Eric Carle Museum is riding the wave of these recent reassessments, finding acceptance from serious quarters in the art world.

Art historian H. Nichols B. Clark left a position as head of education at the High Museum in Atlanta to be founding director of the Carle museum. Previously, he was curator of American paintings at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., where he co-curated the first major exhibition ever to survey children's book illustration in America.

The 1960s saw tremendous change in children's books, spurred both by an expansion in federal money for libraries, which increased the market, and by the era's social changes, Mr. Clark says.

From innovative new techniques like the almost tie-dyed look of Eric Carle's collages, to stories that sometimes plumbed dark psychological territory, everything was opened up.

Van Allsburg is an inheritor of this expansion.

"He's taken the seemingly ordinary and made you feel a little squeamish," Clark observes. "He provokes a sense of wonder, mystery, and befuddlement."

Van Allsburg explains, "I like the idea of being able to stimulate feelings that are not present at the same time - the funny and the tragic, for instance. Those kind of dissonances."

Just as much of the best art for adults is rife with psychological complexities, Curley insists the same holds true for art for kids.

"Children are drawn to the unexpected," she says. "Art for children doesn't have to be simple. It doesn't have to have a happy ending. It can be full of questions and uncertainty."

'The Mysteries of Chris Van Allsburg' continues at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., through March 13.