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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Leo Dillon (1933-2012) RIP

Diane and Leo Dillon (image by Lee Dillon)

In the past 30 years I have written several times about my friends Leo and Diane Dillon.  Their story can be found several places on the Internet and in several of my books.
The first time I met the two of them was in 1977.  During the end of 1976, they had already earned their first Caldecott medal — Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears by Verna Aardema. I was chair of the Cedar Rapids School District's Books Have It...So Do We Conference - for educators, focusing on children's books.  The first year the conference was held was in 1976 (Eric Carle was a first year guest).  But in the fall of 1976 we were busily planning for the second year.  The conference would be held in March 1977.
 We invited the Dillons and they graciously accepted our invitation.  Then sometime in February I got a call from another 1977 invitee, Lee Bennett Hopkins -- he was inquiring as to whether or not I realized what a coup I had made in getting the Dillons for our conference, as they had just earned their second Caldecott (back-to-back with the previous year's award).  This award was for Ashanti to Zulu by Margaret Musgrove.  They would speak first at our conference and then a few months later they would accept the award at the annual ALA convention in Detroit.   Mildred Taylor would be there as well, accepting her Newbery Award for Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry.

So it was in March of 1977 that I first met the talented, gracious, and wonderful illustrators Diane and Leo Dillon.  I loved them both -- my husband, enjoyed Leo very much.  Our dinner, the night before the conference, at the Amana Colonies was a great success.  Diane and Leo spoke at the conference to a sell-out audience (350 attendees).  They told us about the research necessary and symbolism present in their illustrations for Ashanti to Zulu — each illustration depicted a tribal (sometimes a sub-tribal) group living in Africa.  The text highlighted one critical element of the specific tribe/sub-tribe -- presented in alphabetical order.  But the illustrations added much more information.  Present in each illustration was an indication of family structure, clothing, geographical location, an artifact from everyday life, and even the skin color depicted the array of colors of Africa.  I remember feeling pleased that later in 1977 when  Aardema's Who's in Rabbit's House was published with the Dillons's illustrations - my students knew immediately that the story was a Masai story as they recognized the clothing from their page in Ashanti to Zulu.  The illustrations for Ashanti to Zulu were stunning and certainly merited the Caldecott.  Many of us in the children's book world actually thought the Dillons's had a chance at a THIRD consecutive medal.  Alas Peter Spier took the top honor for his Noah's Ark - a worthy choice but still the Dillons's book was outstanding.

In May, I received a coveted invitation from Dial Press to attend a post-award banquet party in honor of the Dillons and Mildred Taylor.  At the time I was the mother of six children, a full-time educator, and in love with books -- but I had never traveled outside of the state of Iowa, other than a few miles over the state line to Omaha, NE, and Dickeyville, WI.  But travel to Detroit.  A big adventure.  A few weeks later I did travel to Detroit, and some of my fondest memories are of sitting on the roof top of the party venue, talking for a couple of hours with Leo and Diane.  The party was much more intimate than those held today.  The Dillons had just a few invitees.  Mildred Taylor's entire family seem to be there from Indiana - if I remember correctly.  The group was friendly, low-keyed, and we laughed and talked of future projects.

Over the years I would meet Leo and Diane at conferences - Leo always asked about my husband, Jack, whom he admired because he could create "things" from wood and metal, and knew about furnaces and mechanical things.  But Leo knew about art and form and he and Diane created magnificent illustrations for many books, and book jackets.  I knew them as picture book artists and my daughter noted that they created the illustrations for Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.

I sometimes called the Dillons and it was always Diane's cheery voice that answered the phone - sometimes from the kitchen of their brownstone -- on one occasion I requested a piece of art work for the Iowa Reading Association to print on t-shirts to be sold to benefit the organization.  She and Leo graciously agreed to send a piece and I took their art work and that of other artists: Tomie dePaola, Steven Kellogg, Ed Emberley, Lorna Balian, Aliki, Robert Quackenbush, and others to a local print shop.  When the shirts were ready for proofing I arrived and met with the president and he asked if I minded if one of the "press men" came up to meet me.  I could not imagine why -- but it turns out he had recognized the Dillons's name and wanted to meet the person who knew them.  I was impressed that he knew a children's book artist -- and he in turn was impressed that I knew someone who had won a coveted Hugo Award for their fantastic sci-fi art.   I, of course, had no idea that they were so well-known in other circles.

When I first wrote about their work in one of my earlier books: Bookpeople: A First Album (Libraries Unlimited, 1990, pages 65-68) I had an editor that disliked my fussiness about gender neutral sentences.  For example, I would not let "maiden name" be used -- substituting instead the term "birth name."  And preferred to avoid hinging one person's existence on another -- a sentence would read  something like "Barbara and Ed Emberley live in a ... " rather than "Ed Emberley and his wife...."  So when I wrote that Leo and Diane Dillon won the Caldecott and Leo became the first African American to win that award, the copy editor immediately chastised me for ignoring Diane's contribution as a "first."  Of course, she is not African American so she was not a first.  But she did eventually become a "first" if not the only non-African American to earn a Coretta Scott King Award.

Subsequently I featured the two, Diane and Leo - Leo and Diane, in 100 Most Popular Picture Book Authors and Illustrators: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies (Libraries Unlimited, 2000, pages 145-50) and in Authors in the Kitchen: Recipes, Stories and More (Libraries Unlimited, 2005, pages 77-81).  In Authors in the Kitchen, Diane and Leo shared some favorite family recipes.  Diane said, "Leo's father was a great chef. He brought from the West Indies many, delicious recipes that we, as a family, enjoyed.  Foods like penne, coo-coo, codfish cakes, and callaloo."  They shared their recollection of the way he made several of these dishes.

Always gracious, always talented, always thoughtful.  I will miss my occasional encounters with Leo Dillon.  An era has closed.  My heart and thoughts go out to Diane and her son Lee.  They will surely miss him more than any of us.  Hopefully their memories will help sustain them much as my memories of the man will make me smile each time I read one of their wonderfully illustrated books with my grandchildren.  Thank you Leo -- and Diane and Lee, thank you for sharing him with all of us who have enjoyed your collaborative efforts.  May you continue and prosper.  May Leo RIP.

Sharron McElmeel

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting - and a beautiful tribute. Now I want to go check out their books to reread!
    Jane Palmer
    Retired School Library Media Specialist
    Jacksonville, Florida