Leo Dillon, one of the world’s most celebrated children’s book illustrator, died Saturday in Brooklyn at age 79 of complications from lung cancer surgery.
Leo and his partner and wife, Diane Dillon, proved to be groundbreaking illustrators after snatching two Caldecott Medals in the 1970s. The first Caldecott, which is considered the nation’s highest honor for children’s book illustrators, was awarded to the legendary couple for their artwork featured in “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears” in 1976. The West African folk tale called for vibrant, strong artwork and the dynamic duo delivered that and more. Only a year later in 1977, the Dillons would earn another coveted Caldecott for their illustrations in “Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions” by Margaret Musgrove.
Before Leo Dillon, no African American had ever won a Caldecott before and to this day the Dillons are the only illustrators to win the prestigious award for two consecutive years.
Leo Dillon was also very attentive to the diversity of the characters in children’s books. During a time when almost every children’s book character was Caucasian, Dillon stepped outside the box and included Hispanic, Asian, and African American characters in his artwork. He gathered his diverse influences from African folk art, Japanese woodcuts, old-master paintings and medieval illumination. He also credited his diverse characters to his interracial marriage, which was yet another rarity during the 1970s.
According to the Dillons, there was a third party called “It” that helped them create their magnificent work. Diane and Leo would pass their unfinished illustrations back and forth between one another, each time completing another step in creating their masterpiece. The finished result would be appeasing to both the eye and the spirit, which they believed was the work of the unseen third party.
Leo met his wife, Diane, in college and was immediately impressed by her artwork. Diana had produced a still life of an Eames chair that had been put on display at a student exhibition at the Parsons School of Design in New York. “This artist was a whole lot better than I. I figured I’d better find out who he was,” Leo told the Horn Book he said after saw the painting. Of course, he was shocked to find out that the “he” behind the painting was a “she,” and a year after graduation she would become his wife in 1956.
According to the New York Times, Leo Dillon still has one more project in the making. A picture book written and illustrated by the Dillons, “If Kids Ran the World,” is scheduled to be published by Blue Sky Press in 2014.
The beloved illustrator leaves behind his wife as well as his son, Lee, who is a sculptor and studio jeweler.