March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Leo Dillon, the First African American Caldecott Winner, Dies at 79

Leo Dillon, the first African American to win the Caldecott Medal, died May 26 in Brooklyn, NY, following “complications of a sudden illness requiring lung surgery,” says Bonnie Verburg, his longtime editor at Scholastic’s Blue Sky Press. He was 79.

Leo Dillon_photo by Pat Cumm(Original Import)
Photo: Pat Cummings

Dillon and his wife, Diane, were the only artists to win the Caldecott Medal two years in a row, in 1976 for a West African folktale, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (1975), and in 1977 for Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions(1976, both Dial). Fierce competitors as art students at New York’s Parson’s School of Design, they eventually became friends and started working together. After graduating in 1956, they collaborated on every book, album cover, poster, and painting, creating a range of multicultural books using a variety of artistic styles. The interracial couple married in 1957 and helped break the color barrier in children’s books. By the time they won their first Caldecott in 1976, the Dillons had been professional artists for 18 years.

Dillon’s career revolved around creating books that educated and enhanced the lives of others, and the couple broke through the tradition of American children’s books filled with white characters. Instead, they created books with heroes from all racial backgrounds, particularly African Americans. Two picture books stand out for their depiction of children and cultures from all over the world: To Every Thing There Is a Season (1998) and Mama Says: A Book for Mothers and Sons (2009, both Scholastic), both of which highlight the similarities and the differences of people and how we express ourselves and the emotions we all share.

Their 1990 bestselling picture book Aida (Harcourt) by opera diva Leontyne Price introduced young readers to the beautiful Ethiopian princess. Their three-story collections, The People Could Fly; Many Thousand Gone (Knopf, 1985); and Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales (Scholastic, 1993) by Newbery Medalist Virginia Hamilton, presented readers with African American stories of courage and wit.

In 2002, they published the first picture book that they wrote themselves, Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles—Think of That!, followed by Jazz on a Saturday Night (2007, both Scholastic). They also collaborated with their son, sculptor Lee Dillon, on their award-winning Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch (Harcourt, 1991), by Newbery Medal-winner Nancy Willard. The title was an American Library Association Notable Book and a Parents’ Choice Honor Book.

At the time of his death, Dillon and his wife were finishing up art for If Kids Ran the World, about children helping other children to feed those in need, get medical aid, and provide shelter for the homeless. The book will be published by the Blue Sky Press in 2014 and proceeds will be donated to various charities.

Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Dillon was encouraged by a family friend to pursue his interest in art. A sculptor, painter, designer, and engraver, he studied the work of all artists and continued to evolve as an artist throughout this life. Apart from his family, his great passion was experimenting and with his artistic style and different mediums. Committed to ensuring that people from all backgrounds were represented and respected in the books he created, Leo work touched many people and inspired writers and artists to do the same.

The Dillons’s long list of awards include 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.

Dillon is survived by his wife, Diane, and their son, Lee Dillon.

Here’s a five-minute documentary by of the Dillons talking about their work.