This has been a terrible couple of weeks in the children’s literature world. I’m almost afraid to open the CLN homepage for fear of finding out more deaths. Now Leo Dillon, one of the best illustrators of folktales on the planet, has also died.
Leo Dillon illustrated every book with his wife Diane. This, to me is genuinely amazing because I can’t even paint a wall with my husband without wanting to kill him! As it turns out, Leo and Diane did get married to prevent them from murdering each other. They were so competitive that the only solution was to collaborate. Every project began with an initial discussion of ideas, then one drew the outlines and the other colored in. This was followed by many energetic back-and-forth debates. After enough time and arguing had passed an image would appear which seemed to the Dillions to frequently have been the work of an unseen but very much present third party whom they called “It.”
The Dillons and “It” illustrated numerous folktales and what really stands out is their ability to capture the heart of stories from almost every corner of the world. This list should give you a sense of the incredible scope of their folktale work:
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears written by Verna Aardema is a West African cumulative tale about a mosquito that tells a story and the jungle disaster that follows. They won the 1976 Caldecott for this book. It is amazing to read, filled with fun sounds and action. With bug season upon us and mosquitoes hatching all around, you should hurry to the library and check this one out.
Who’s in Rabbit’s House? is also written by Verna Aardema. It’s a Masai tale, presented in the form of a play, in which the frog gets the job of getting a monster out of the rabbit’s house after the leopard, elephant, and rhino bungle the job. An outstanding choice for reader’s theater or any acting.
The Ring in the Prairie, is a Shawnee Legend by John Bierhorst, which relates how an Indian warrior, his wife and son became the first eagles on earth.
Two Pairs of Shoes by P.L. Travers (of Mary Poppins fame) is a retelling of two Middle Eastern folktales which show how two pairs of shoes unwittingly reflect the true character of the men who own them.
The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson is a Japanese folktale about a mandarin duck that is captured and caged by a greedy lord who wants to show off the bird’s plumage. The ducks longs for its mate, so a maid releases it. The lord is furious and sentences her to death, but the ducks save the day.
The Race of the Golden Apples is a Greek myth retold by Claire Martin. It the tale of a Greek princess who refuses to marry unless the man can outrun her in a footrace.
Between Heaven and Earth: Bird Tales From Around the World by Norman Howard includes five bird stories from around the world.
The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese, is a collection of Inuit folktales by Howard Norman. Kirkus says the following: “This collection is not only the handsomest gathering of Inuit folktales ever, but one that will bring readers as close to a living oral tradition as printed material can.”
The People Could Fly. African American Folktales by Virginia Hamilton. The 24 folk tales include animal tales, supernatural tales, cautionary tales, and slave tales of freedom. It’s a must have collection.
Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales and True Tales is also by Virginia Hamilton and focuses on strong female characters.
Their last work, which came out in 2011 is Never Forgotten by Patricia McKissack. This is a lyrical story, set in West Africa and told in verse about a young black boy who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.
This is just a tiny sampling of Leo and Diane Dillon’s work but it illustrates what a loss Leo Dillon’s death is to the folktale world. I hope Diane and It are okay.