- Virginia Johnson
Leo Dillon was fascinated by Diane Sorber before he ever laid eyes on her. It was one of her paintings that caught his attention. For he did not know of any other student who had that deft, expressive technique. He was curious and a little jealous. He had a rival, and he knew it.
Leo and Diane were students at Parsons School of Design in the 1950s. Set in the famously bohemian neighborhood of Greenwich Village, New York, Parsons was the perfect place to study one’s art, collaborate while learning, and, sometimes, fall in love. Within a year of graduation, they married and were soon creating art together.
Their joint career spanned more than half a century, until Leo’s death from complications of cancer in 2012. To their credit are hundreds of illustrations which expanded and enriched the stories they accompanied. They may have been created with different, masterful techniques, but the strength and elegance of the lines and often jewel-like tones of the later color images were hallmarks of their work.
As an interracial couple starting life together in the 1950s, Leo and Diane were very aware of how non-white subjects were often rudely or simplistically portrayed in picture books. That was a place where that they would ultimately be a force for change, by bringing beauty and dignity to all of their subjects.
Even so, how did two such gifted, driven artists reconcile their differences when working together on paintings? As Leo explained it in an interview with Locus magazine:
“People often comment on the 'Dillon style.' 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.”*
In the same interview, they spoke of “the Third Artist,” a concept which gave them the freedom to work in tandem while ultimately making a work that was different than either of them would do separately. Radical changes might happen in a design, but it seemed to be the result of the Third Artist’s vision.
Shining a Light on Other Worlds
In 1959, the Dillons met a firecracker of a writer who would be their gateway to drawing for fantasy and science fiction magazines and books and would become a lifelong friend. Harlan Ellison, a brilliant and prolific author, was working as an editor for a men’s magazine at the time they met. In 1967, his major work, Dangerous Visions, needed an illustrator. He called on his friends the Dillons for that project and also introduced them to Ace books editor Terry Carr.
Their work on Ace’s special editions would lead to a Hugo award for illustration in 1971, and, in time, they would create illustrations for classic older works, including an edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, the 1994 editions of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and Joan D. Vinge’s adult retelling of The Snow Queen. Their efforts in the field of the fantastic were certainly appreciated. They won a Balrog, a lifetime achievement award for work in fantasy and science fiction in 1982, and won the World Fantasy Awards Lifetime Achievement Prize in 2008.
Illustrating Books for Children
The Dillons also found steady work in the realm of children’s fiction. In 1976, Leo and Diane won the Caldecott Medal for their illustrations of Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears. It was the first time a person of color, Leo, had won a Caldecott. The following year, they won again for the illustrations in Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions. It was another first— the first time an artist had won back-to-back Caldecott Medals.
Leo and Diane enjoyed the challenge of experimenting with new and older techniques. For example, when they illustrated Katherine Paterson’s The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks, they used watercolor and pastels in the style of 18th-century Japanese woodcuts to help tell the traditional story of two devoted birds and the kindness of servants who brave their evil lord’s wrath so they might be together.
In the 2000s, the Dillons worked together on writing and illustrating several picture books, including Mother Goose Numbers on the Loose, Rap A Tap Tap: Here's Bojangles, Think of That, and Jazz on a Saturday Night. One of their later books, To Every Thing There Is a Season, is based on verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and its illustrations reflect various times and cultures. In its celebration of life and gentle understanding of death, it is a treasure to be passed between generations at both difficult and joyful times.
The library is fortunate to have many books that were illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. A largely complete list of what we own is here.
Getting to Know the Dillons: Fast Facts
Leo was born: March 2, 1933, in Brooklyn, NY; his parents—Lionel J., owner of a truck business, and Marie, a dressmaker—had emigrated from Trinidad.
Diane was born: March 13, 1933, in Glendale, California, as Diane Claire Sorber. She is the daughter of Adelbert Paul (a teacher) and Phyllis (a pianist).
Leo served three years’ enlistment in the U.S. Navy, which allowed him the funds to later attend art school.
Graduated (both): Parsons School of Design, 1956
Married: each other, March 17, 1957
Child: Lionel “Lee” Dillon, a sculptor, illustrator, and studio jeweler, born in 1965
Home: Brooklyn, NY
Office: c/o Dial Press, 1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, 245 East 47th St., New York, NY 10017
First illustrated book: Their first illustrated chapter book was Hakon of Rogen's Saga, by Erik Christian Haugaard, 1963. Their first picture book was The Ring in the Prairie, by John Bierhorst, 1970.
A Few of Their Many Awards: 1976 Caldecott Medal for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears; 1977 Caldecott Medal for illustrations in Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions; Balrog Award, 1982, for "Lifetime Contribution to Sci-Fi/Fantasy Art;" Coretta Scott King Award, 1986, for The People Could Fly; Coretta Scott King Award for illustration, 1991, for Aida; World Fantasy Awards Lifetime Achievement Prize, 2008.
Leo died May 26, 2012, from cancer.
Learn More about the Dillons Online:
*Leo & Diane Dillon: The Third Artist Rules (Locus magazine)
“Diane Dillon.” (2012). In Contemporary Authors Online. Retrieved from Biography in Context.
“Leo Dillon.” (2013). In Contemporary Black Biography (Vol. 103). Detroit: Gale. Retrieved from Biography in Context.
Below is quick celebration of the Dillons’ lives and work from an appreciative librarian: