Leo Dillon

Leo DillonLeo Dillon   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.Contributor: Scholastic ReviewsThe Goblin and the Empty ChairMem FoxIllustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon   Some books are beautifully written and well-illustrated, and some are all that and serve a meaningful purpose. The Goblin and the Empty Chair is one of those books. This is a story about valuing deeds over appearances, about dealing with loss, about focusing on others rather than oneself. Mem Fox’s words are deceptively simple; they use the cadence of fable to tell the story of a goblin who hides so others can’t see his ugly face. He is moved to compassion by the sorrow of a farm family, and secretly helps them complete their tasks. But it is the gouache illustrations by Leo and DianeDillon that give the story its substance. The large panels on each page portray what the words describe, while a small panel above them shows the action in storyboard fashion. And there’s more to see at each reading, like the grinning goblin faces peeking out from behind each large panel. A family portrait on the wall shows two children, but we only see the little girl, and she has a picture of her brother on the wall in her bedroom. And are they on another planet? There are two moons in the night sky, and the plants are like nothing seen on earth. This highly recommended book is truly one that could be used with all ages. Older children could study how the illustrators give hints about the story, and how Mem Fox uses the language of fable to impart lasting lessons. Younger ones may want to share their feelings about the loss of a loved one. But beware! The Goblin and the Empty Chair may be hard to read aloud without losing one’s composure. 2009, Beach Lane Books, Ages 6 to 10, $17.99. Reviewer: Anna Campos (Catholic Library World, December 2010 (Vol. 81, No. 2)).
ISBN: 9781416985853Jazz on a Saturday NightLeo and Diane Dillon   On stage, the musicians/ open their cases,/ set up their instruments,/ take their places./ Spotlight’s on! The announcer sweeps into sight./’You’re in for a session of magic tonight.'” Thus begins Leo and Diane Dillon’s creation of one imagined Saturday evening of “jazz immortality.” The Dillons bring together many of the undisputed greatest players in the history of jazz–Miles Davis, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Stanley Clarke, and Ella Fitzgerald–who never actually shared the stage all at the same time (e.g., Clarke was born just four years before Parker died). But the point is not to portray an actual historical event but to capture in picture book form the contagious excitement of jazz. The simple, effortlessly rhyming text shows how jazz musicians work together to improvise music never heard before or after that one special evening: “His [Coltrane’s] sax talks to Charlie’s, and Charlie’s talks back.” As one page leads in to another, different musicians join in, and the audience joins in, too, “toes tapping, hands clapping,” exploding in applause, “on our feet with delight” because “Jazz is so cool on a Saturday night.” The art shares the love each musician has for his instrument; on the final spread we can feel the glow of the well-dressed, exuberant but contented African-American audience dancing their way back home again. The book includes brief bios of the jazz greats featured, recommended recordings, and a CD containing additional information about jazz and an original jazz piece inspired by the paintings in the book. 2007, Blue Sky/Scholastic, Ages all, $16.99. Reviewer: Claudia Mills, Ph.D. (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 9780590478939Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and SonsRob D. WalkerIllustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon   Mama Says” is a beautiful children’s book of inspiring thoughts spoken from mothers to sons in twelve different languages and cultural settings. “Mama Says” is beautifully illustrated by award-winning artists Leo and Diane Dillon, with a small square of fabric as a symbol for each mother of each nationality on the lower left side of each page of sayings. In addition to the beautiful colorful illustrations of twelve different cultural backgrounds, each saying is also flawlessly presented in the appropriate language of the culture, alongside the English version. Thus we have not only a picture of another culture’s background and traditions, we also get to see its actual script and written language. The languages and cultures presented include Cherokee, Russian, Amharic, Japanese, Hindi, Inuktitut, Hebrew, English, Korean, Arabic, Quechua, and Danish. Further enhancing the racial and cultural diversity, the English example shows a handsome young black boy with his mother, walking carrying books against a background of signshakers reading “hate.” The English saying is “Mama says/To be on time/ Mama says/ Be neat/ Mama says/ To walk with pride/ And never drag my feet (p. 20).” The final two page illustration shows all twelve boys together, grown up, with hands on each other’s’ shoulders. The saying is “I listened to what Mama said/ And now I am a man (p.29-30).” “Mama Says” is a children’s book so compellingly moving and beautiful that it made me weep. Teaching children the strong underlying message of respect and honor for our diversity is stunningly accomplished in “Mama Says.” Strongly recommended for ages preschool through second grade (3-8). Blue Sky Press/Scholastic, Ages 3 to 8, $16.99. Reviewer: Midwest Book Review (Children’s Bookwatch, June 2009).
ISBN: 9780439932080Mother Goose Numbers on the LooseLeo and Diane Dillon   For their theme in these twenty-four verses the Dillon’s have chosen numbers, beginning with “1, 2, 3,/ The bumblebee…” and progressing through “1 potato, 2 potato, 3 potato, 4…” to “1, 2,/ Buckle my shoe, … 9, 10,/ A good fat hen.” Then they go back down the numbers to “There were 2 blackbirds sitting on a hill,” and the Jack and Jill that fly away. Each rhyme has the numbers printed in purple as they appear on a double-page spread. There is a sly sense of humor in the many characters invented by the artists to illustrate the verses. Some, like a quartet of wrens, are quite naturalistic. More, like the pelican dressed as a postman, behave anthropomorphically. And many more are in zany costumes and wild wigs. There are bits of objects included in the groupings of characters but no scenery. None is needed, as these assorted and very active figures, deftly painted in gouache with touches of pencil, go about visualizing aspects of the brief lines of text. Mother Goose herself, on the jacket, chases the dancing numbers over and across into the endpapers and wipes her brow on the title page. In a note, the Dillons discuss their choice of verses and illustrations for the Mother Goose rhymes, some familiar and some less so. 2007, Harcourt Children’s Books, Ages 3 to 6, $17.00. Reviewers: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 9780152056766Never ForgottenPatricia C. McKissackIllustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon   Patricia C. McKissack draws on history and folklore to weave a stirring original tale told through poems about a West African (Mende) child whose father, a gifted blacksmith, raises him after his mother dies during childbirth. The boy’s father calls upon the four elements, Mother Earth, Mother Fire, Mother Water, and Mother Wind, for assistance, and young Mustafa grows well and strong. He is just starting to learn his father’s craft when he disappears while on an errand, captured by slavers. Each of his Mothers uses her powers and gifts to track him across the Middle Passage, but none can rescue him and he is sold. After many years, Wind journeys across the ocean and finds him, now a young man, working for a white blacksmith, making beautiful things with his gift. McKissack’s story resonates with love and loss and grief, and ultimately hope, all of which are echoed in Leo and Diane Dillon’s exquisite illustrations. McKissack describes the origins of her idea as well as the history and folklore elements she drew upon as she wrote a story that “addresses the question all of us who are descendants of the Taken ask: ‘Were we missed?’ I answer with a resounding ‘Yes! We were never forgotten.'” 2011, Schwartz & Wade, Age 10 and older, $18.99. Reviewer: CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices, 2012).
ISBN: 9780375843846The People Could Fly: The Picture BookVirginia HamiltonIllustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon   Hamilton’s retelling of this African American folktale appeared originally in her Coretta Scott King Award-winning collection of the same title. It stands alone in this picture book edition newly-illustrated by the Dillons. Some slaves are cruelly treated by their overseer. They have forgotten the magic that enabled them to fly in Africa. An old man reminds them. Whispering the magic words to them, he helps them fly triumphantly to freedom. The illustrations that tell the visual tale, one per page, are treated as pocket dramas. Set off by the thick gold bands that frame each scene, they use pigments that seem to glow. Figures are sculptural, faces animated by the emotions of the story, colors chosen to enhance these emotions. The flying figures are depicted with a dance-like sense of grace. The magic is instilled in the pictures as well as the words. Notes from the editor and the author provide additional information. The accompanying CD has James Earl Jones and Virginia Hamilton reading the text. Don’t overlook the book’s endpapers. 2007 (orig. 1985 and 2004), Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, Ages 5 to 9, $17.99. Reviewers: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 9780375845536Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles Think of That!Leo and Diane Dillon   Once again the Dillons have successfully combined text with their unique colorful illustrations to create an exciting visual package in this book that aptly describes the life of legendary tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, while also managing to highlight his dancing ways. The simple one line per page format kicks off and continues throughout the book. Sing-song rhyming lines and the repetitive phrase “rap a tap tap–think of that” alternate with each other to produce an appealing page-turner geared to the young set. A shadowy illusion technique gives Mr. Bojangles the appearance of actually toe-tapping his feet. Mr. Bojangles threads his way through bright cityscapes where people are engaged in a variety of daily activities. By absorbing the book from cover to cover the reader learns that the dancer entertained all kinds of people with whom he had contact and that his talent was viewed as a work of art. Add this book to any library or home shelf to increase awareness of a wonderful real life entertainer. 2002, The Blue Sky Press/Scholastic, Ages 4 to 8, $15.95. Reviewer: Nancy Garhan Attebury (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 9780590478830The Secret RiverMarjorie Kinnan RawlingsIllustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon   The celebrated Dillon illustrating team use their considerable artistic skill to revive a modern classic. Although it won a Newbery Honor medal after being published posthumously in 1956 with illustrations by Leonard Weisgard, Rawling’s fairy tale-like story of poverty, faith and redemption in the American South has been forgotten in the decades since. Here, the Dillons breathe life into the timeless tale, calling it to the attention of modern readers. Young girl-poet Calpurnia and her little dog Buggy-horse are worried. Hard times have come to the forest, and her father has nothing to sell at his fish market. Their neighbors have no money to buy food or other goods; without food, they have no energy to work to buy money. It is a vicious cycle, and Calpurnia sets out to break it. After a word of encouragement from a kind neighbor, she finds a mysterious river chock full of fish. The trip home is difficult and dangerous, but the resourceful girl uses her fortune of fishes to help others along the way. Calpurnia’s timely bounty brings “soft times” to her community, but it is a one-time blessing. Ever after, the secret river flows only in her mind. This lovely, elegant and uplifting tale is sure to inspire readers young and old alike. Recommended for home libraries, public libraries, and classroom collections. 2011, Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, Ages 4 to 8, $19.99. Reviewer: Heidi Hauser Green (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 9781416911791 Updated 7/1/12To stay up to date on new books by this author, consider subscribing to The Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. For your free trial, click here.If you’re interested in reviewing children’s and young adult books, then send a resume and writing sample to marilyn@childrenslit.com.Back to Top

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