Leo Dillon, 79, a groundbreaking illustrator who collaborated with his wife on dozens of books for children and adults and became the first African American to win the Caldecott Medal for children’s books, died May 26 at a hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y. He had complications from lung surgery, the publisher Scholastic Inc. announced.
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 variety of children’s projects, mastering a bold, colorful style that helped introduce kids to stories of black people worldwide.
They won their first Caldecott for best illustration in 1976 for “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Folktale.” They won another Caldecott the next year for “Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions.”
The Dillons also received 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 include more than 40 books, including cover designs for books by Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, and other science fiction and fantasy writers. They also illustrated books by Margaret Wise Brown, Madeleine L’Engle and Verna Aardema.
The couple 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.