Diane and Leo Dillon

1933, Glendale, California (Diane) and Brooklyn, New York (Leo)
2012, Brooklyn, New York (Leo)

Diane and Leo Dillon first crossed paths in 1953 while attending college together. They met at the beginning of a vital time for change; the following decades would precipitate a revolution towards progressive values, civil rights, and social equality—and the design profession would not be excluded. This was an era when all the faces in children’s books were white, but thanks to the Dillons, that was about to change.

Diane and Leo didn’t immediately fall in love. In fact, upon meeting at Parsons School for Design in New York City, they were instant rivals. “We sat next to each other and for the first three of four years we competed bitterly,” Leo explains. Born just 11 days apart on opposite sides of the country, they were both undeniably talented.

“Fortunately, or unfortunately, we fell in love, and decided that we couldn’t spend any time away from each other.” Though they didn’t know it then, the couple would become agents of change for the representation of cultural diversity, recognized as preeminent illustrators for young people.

“We’re an interracial couple, and we decided early in our career that we wanted to represent all races and show people that were rarely seen in children’s books at the time,” Leo said in a 2002 joint interview. Leo Dillon passed away in 2012 at the age of 79, but fortunately their intertwined story is well-documented.

The Dillons both studied graphic design in school and honed in on illustration as a medium of choice. “There doesn’t have to be a separation between any of the disciplines,” Diane says. “We learned in school that there are so many choices in the world of art. We didn’t start out wanting to be illustrators. We started out wanting to be artists.”

The couple was on a lifelong journey to discover beauty and creativity in the world, and museums always served as a major source of inspiration. Today, pieces by the Dillons hang in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, among other institutions. They’re recognized for being among the most talented and versatile artists of their genre, and their work is praised for its vibrancy and ethno-racial diversity of subject matter.

For most of their career the couple worked out of a studio in their Brooklyn brownstone. They began producing published works in 1957. Their son, Lee, was born in 1965 and would follow in their footsteps to become a celebrated painter, sculptor, and craftsman. In 1970, they produced their first co-authored picture book, an illustrated Native American tale called The Ring and the Prairie, written by John Bierhorst. Their range also included African folk tales, Scandinavian epics, fantasy, fiction, and science fiction. They chose their subject matter with intention, selecting books with a spiritualist quality and messages about acceptance and individuality.

“The Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements played a role in shaping our ideals. I would also include our son Lee as a huge influence on our lives.” –Diane Dillon

In 1976, the Dillons were awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal for Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears, by Verna Aardema. The duo noted that the art for this book was stylistically unique because they zoomed in very close on the subject matter, a new technique for them. Leo was the first Black Caldecott award-winner. In 1977, the Dillons received the Caldecott Medal once again, the first time it was awarded to the same recipient consecutively. For this book, Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions, the couple wanted to portray differences in culture within one country, showing that people are different no matter where you are. It highlighted their hallmark ability to incorporate comprehensive and painstaking detail shines through: each picture includes a dwelling, a man, woman, and child, an artifact, an animal, a landscape, and a bird representative of the regional culture.

Diane and Leo relied heavily on research to understand other cultures. “We’ve never been to Africa,” Leo said in a 2003 interview. “We didn’t travel much and have been to very few places in the world. But we’ve been everywhere in books.” They would pour over stacks of reference materials on time periods, people, and cultures to come up with ideas for things to include in pictures.

By the time Diane and Leo illustrated Madeleine L’Engle’s 1979 book, A Wrinkle in Time, they were already well-known for their incredible range. In addition to children’s books, the couple was illustrating chapter books, prints, posters, book jackets, album covers, textbooks, and more. They would continue through the ’80s and ’90s to amass a prolific portfolio of vibrant work with astounding attention to detail and innovative use of color that was as diverse as the subject matter. The Dillons didn’t own any style. They were chameleons of media and technique. Each work was its own piece of art.

In 2002, Diane and Leo became writers themselves when they co-authored and illustrated Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles—Think of That, which later won a Coretta Scott King award. They would continue to write more, including the popular children’s book, Jazz on a Saturday Night, published in 2007.

“Working as a team with your husband, communication can be challenging. Although we were agreeing, we were each picturing something in our heads that could be quite different. We learned to sit together at the table and draw sketches to clarify what we were thinking.” –Diane Dillon

Every piece Diane and Leo Dillon produced was created jointly. “We came to the concept of the ‘third artist,’ which was the combination of the two of us doing something that neither one of us could do separately,” Diane says. “We would look at a piece after we finished it, and it’d be impossible for us to figure out who did what.”

Their co-creation began with communication and storyboarding. After some rough sketches to clarify their thinking, someone would start the drawing using a blue pencil, chosen for its anonymity and lack of character while the story emerged. They passed these drawings back and forth, each revising and refining until details emerged and it was time to add color. This was the final step, whether it was a watercolor wash or another technique. They might have used gouache for flat shape and color, or might have chosen acrylics, tempura, pastel, or oil paints. “We use all kinds of media,” Leo said. “Whatever media fits our need, we will use.”

“From my earliest memories art materials were always present. Hand made baroque-shaped strips of pastel color in a multitude of hues, tubes of paint, papers in many forms colors and textures, brushes in all shapes, sculpting supplies, drafting materials, and books about art from all periods. Some tools at that time I had no understanding of their purpose or what their use was. All these things intrigued me.” –Lee Dillon (son of Diane and Leo Dillon)

In 2008, Diane and Leo Dillon were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Society of Illustrators. By this time they had worked together for over 40 years and produced more than 50 children’s books. The couple has been awarded nearly every award in their genre (sometimes more than once), including the Society of Illustrators’ Gold Medal, three New York Times Best Illustrated Book awards, and the NAACP Image award.

Today, Diane Dillon is enjoying a life of leisure without deadlines—sort of. She completed a book the couple was working on before Leo died called If Kids Ran the World, and is currently working on a new picture book, which she also wrote. She continues to explore her personal art and practice their lifelong motto, “Make life an art.”