Leo Dillon, Award-Winning Author/Illustrator, Dies at Age 79
New York, NY (May 30, 2012)--LEO DILLON, one of the world’s most celebrated children’s book artists—internationally applauded for creating a world of stunning multicultural books using a broad diversity of art styles and ethnic backgrounds—died on Saturday, May 26, in Brooklyn, New York. He was 79. “The cause was complications of a sudden illness requiring lung surgery,” said Bonnie Verburg, his longtime editor at the Blue Sky Press/Scholastic and formerly Harcourt. Mr. Dillon, who died at Long Island College Hospital, lived in nearby Brooklyn.
In a highly unusual collaboration, Leo Dillon and his wife, Diane Dillon, worked together seamlessly on every book, poster, album cover, and painting since they graduated together from New York’s Parson’s School of Design in 1956 and married in 1957. Fierce competitors in art school, they became friends and joined forces by working together. Their unrivalled ability to work in an exceptional range of artistic styles, their painstaking process of decision making, and their unwillingness to compromise their design, technique, or artistic integrity for any reason has raised the standard of what it means to be a book illustrator. Despite their intimate collaboration over the past five decades, they have continued to decline to answer the question: “How do you work together?” It remains a mystery to this day.
An interracial couple, Leo and Diane Dillon broke the color barrier in children’s books, and Leo became the first African American to win the coveted 1975 Caldecott Medal for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, a West African folktale. At that time they had been professional artists for eighteen years, and the following year, in 1976, they were awarded the Caldecott Medal again for Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions. It was the first time the award had been given to the same artists two years in a row.
As illustrators, designers, and craftsmen, the Dillons comment on a “third artist” who emerges as the combination of the two of them. In 2002, they published the first picture book they wrote themselves, Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles—Think of That!, followed by Jazz on a Saturday Night (2007). As well, they collaborated with their son, sculptor Lee Dillon, on their award-winning title Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch, by Newbery Medalist Nancy Willard, an ALA Notable Book and a Parents’ Choice Honor Book.
Always conscious of justice and injustice, Leo Dillon’s career revolved around creating books that educated and enhanced the lives of others. In one ground-breaking book after another, the Dillons broke through the tradition of American children’s books filled with white children and white families, instead publishing books populated with dazzling heroes and heroines from all racial backgrounds, particularly African Americans. Their 1990 picture book by opera diva Leontyne Price, Aida, introduced young readers to the beautiful, sparkling Ethiopian princess and became an immediate bestseller. As well, their three story collections by Newbery Medalist Virginia Hamilton, The People Could Fly; Many Thousand Gone; and Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales, presented readers with African American stories of courage and wit.
Two picture books stand out for their gentle yet stunning depiction of children and cultures from all over the world: To Every Thing There Is a Season, in which each verse of Ecclesiastes is illustrated with varying art techniques from sixteen different cultures; and Mama Says: A Book for Mothers and Sons, which presents spreads picturing mothers and boys from twelve different countries. Leo insisted that the verse on each spread be translated into its native language in non-Roman type. Both books simultaneously highlight the wondrous similarities and the wondrous differences of all people and how we express ourselves and the emotions we all share.
At the time of his death, Leo Dillon and his wife were finishing up art for a fanciful book entitled If Kids Ran the World, about children happily helping other children to feed those in need, get medical aid to all who need it, and to provide shelter for the homeless. The book will be published by the Blue Sky Press/Scholastic in 2014, and proceeds will be donated to various charities.
Leo and Diane Dillon’s long list of awards include two Caldecott Medals; multiple Coretta Scott King Awards; the Hamilton King Award; the NAACP Image Award; the Society of Illustrators Gold Medal; the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award; the Hugo Award; multiple Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards; multiple New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year Awards; the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award; Most Highly Commended for the International Hans Christian Andersen Medal; the Grandmasters Award for the Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art; induction into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame; and honorary Doctorates of Fine Arts from the Parsons School of Design in 1991 and Monserrat School of Art in 2006.
Leo Dillon was born in Brooklyn in 1933, and a family friend encouraged his lifetime interest in art. A sculptor, painter, designer, engraver, and visionary in all arts, he studied the work of all manner of artists and continued to evolve as an innovator throughout this life. In addition to his family, his great passion has been experimentation and taking risks in every conceivable art style and medium. Committed to ensuring that all people, from all backgrounds, be represented and respected in the books he illustrated, Leo Dillon became a beacon of light and enlightenment across the span of his remarkable life. Humble and uninterested in fame or publicity, Leo’s focus was always on the work and how to improve it. He was wholeheartedly committed to the dignity of all people across the globe. By creating the work he did, he touched millions of people and gave the children’s book industry a level of generosity, dignity, and grace that was desperately needed. He has influenced and inspired thousands of writers and artists, and his work will continue to encourage generations to come.
Leo Dillon is survived by his beloved family—his wife, Diane Dillon, and their son, Lee Dillon. Details about a celebration of Leo Dillon’s life will be forthcoming.
Tracy van Straaten; 212/389-3782: TvanStraaten@scholastic.com
Bonnie Verburg, Editorial Director, The Blue Sky Press: email@example.com