Remembering Leo Dillon (1933-2012) and Ellen Levine (1939-2012)
By Scholastic on May 30th, 2012
The children’s book world is reacting to sad news today: both author/illustrator Leo Dillon and author Ellen Levine have passed away.
Leo Dillon, one of the world’s most celebrated children’s book artists—internationally applauded for creating a world of stunning multicultural books using a broad diversity of art styles and ethnic backgrounds—died on Saturday, May 26, in Brooklyn, New York. He was 79.
Ellen Levine, award-winning author, teacher, mentor and fierce fighter for social justice, died on May 26, 2012, after a valiant 19-month battle with lung cancer. She died peacefully with her beloved spouse and partner of 40 years, Anne Koedt, and her devoted sister Mada Liebman and adored brother-in-law Burt Liebman by her side.
In a highly unusual collaboration, Leo Dillon and his wife, Diane Dillon, worked together seamlessly on every book, poster, album cover, and painting since they graduated together from New York’s Parson’s School of Design in 1956 and married in 1957.
An interracial couple, Leo and Diane Dillon broke the color barrier in children’s books, and Leo became the first African American to win the coveted 1975 Caldecott Medal for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, a West African folktale. At that time they had been professional artists for eighteen years, and the following year, in 1976, they were awarded the Caldecott Medal again for Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions. It was the first time the award had been given to the same artists two years in a row.
As illustrators, designers, and craftsmen, the Dillons comment on a “third artist” who emerges as the combination of the two of them. In 2002, they published the first picture book they wrote themselves, Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles—Think of That!, followed by Jazz on a Saturday Night (2007). As well, they collaborated with their son, sculptor Lee Dillon, on their award-winning title Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch, by Newbery Medalist Nancy Willard, an ALA Notable Book and a Parents’ Choice Honor Book.
At the time of his death, Leo Dillon and his wife were finishing up art for a fanciful book entitled If Kids Ran the World, about children happily helping other children to feed those in need, get medical aid to all who need it, and to provide shelter for the homeless. The book will be published by the Blue Sky Press/Scholastic in 2014, and proceeds will be donated to various charities.
Ellen Levine was the author of fiction and non-fiction for children, young readers, and adults that focused on important social issues and historical periods. Her rigorous research and devotion to accuracy made her stories compelling. Henry’s Freedom Box (a Caldecott Honor) is the true story of a slave who mailed himself to freedom; Darkness Over Denmark details the rescue of Jews by the Danes in World War II; A Fence Away from Freedom details the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s; Freedom’s Children, a profile of young black civil rights activists in the 1960s, was termed “nothing short of wonderful” in a New York Times review; I Hate English, about a Chinese girl struggling to learn English, has become a resource for ESL teachers.
Prior to embarking on her writing career, Ellen clerked for Chief Judge Joseph Lord of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and practiced law with the Prisoners Rights Project of the NY Legal Aid Society.
Ms. Levine’s mother, Ide Gruber Levine, was a theater and arts reviewer for the “Review of Reviews” in the 1930’s and was a frequent contributor to the columns of Walter Winchell. Her father, Nathan Levine, one of the first attorneys appointed as a Trial Attorney in the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1947, became a lawyer for immigrant rights after retiring from the INS. “I grew up,” Ellen wrote, “knowing there were battles to be fought and worlds to change.”
Our thoughts are with Leo Dillon’s and Ellen Levine’s families.