Leo Dillon, the groundbreaking illustrator who collaborated with his wife, Diane, on dozens of books for kids and adults and became the first African-American to win the Caldecott Medal for children's books, has died. He was 79.
Dillon died May 26 at Long Island College Hospital from complications after lung surgery, publisher Scholastic Inc. announced Wednesday. Harlan Ellison, a close friend, wrote on his website that "Half my soul for 50 years went with him."
Leo and Diane Dillon met at the Parsons School of Design in 1953 and married four years later. An interracial couple, they worked on a wide range of children's projects, mastering a bold, colorful style that helped introduce kids to stories of black people worldwide. They won the Caldecott for best illustration in 1976 for "Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears: A West African Folktale" and again won Caldecott the following year for "Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions."
The Dillons received awards as diverse as their books, including a Hugo Award for science fiction illustration and an NAACP Image Award.
"People often comment on the 'Dillon style,'" Leo Dillon said in 2000 during an interview with Locus Magazine. "I think that someplace, the two of us made a pact with each other. We both decided that we would give up the essence of ourselves, that part that made the art each of us did our own. And I think that in doing that we opened the door to everything."
Their credits included more than 40 books, from cover designs for Ellison, Ray Bradbury and other science fiction and fantasy writers to illustrations for books by Margaret Wise Brown, Madeleine L'Engle and Verna Aardema, author of the two Caldecott winners.
They wrote and illustrated the picture books "Rap a Tap Tap" and "Jazz on a Saturday Night" and collaborated with their son Lee Dillon on "Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch." A new work by Leo and Diane Dillon, "If Kids Ran the World," is scheduled for 2014.