Author Interviews

Leo and Diane Dillon Interview Transcript

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Leo and Diane Dillon are the award-winning author/illustrator team of many books honoring African culture. Their newest book Jazz on a Saturday Night was released in September 2007. They were interviewed by Scholastic students in 2003.

At Terry Mill Elementary School in Atlanta, Georgia, Rap a Tap Tap: Here's Bojangles, Think of That was selected as our book of the month for January. Our principal selected your book to show us how through hard work and perseverance, you can achieve your goals. We also learned about a famous African American. Did you ever imagine your book would touch the lives of so many children?
Diane:
Well that's always a hope. We hope that we're touching the lives of children, and we're very honored that you found so much in the book.
Leo: When we do children's books, we try to keep the child in mind, but we're really working for the child in ourselves.

How did you decide to write about Bojangles?
Leo:
That came to us as one of those mysterious thoughts that come out of the ether; we never know where they [the ideas] come from. They seldom come that way, but this was one of the lucky times when something was waiting for us to do.
Diane: When we were children, about 10, he [Bojangles] was at the peak of his career. We remember movies of him dancing. We weren't necessarily thinking about him when the idea came to us - it came to us out of the blue.

Didn't your new book Rap a Tap Tap just win an award? Tell us about that. Have you won a lot of awards?
Leo: We won the Coretta Scott King Award [for Rap a Tap Tap]. That was a surprise. We weren't prepared for that. We've gotten enough awards, so at this point we don't think of them, so when it happens it's always a shock.
Diane: Awards are very meaningful because they let us know that people are looking at our work and appreciate it. It has given us confidence over the years; awards are very meaningful that way. But we don't work for awards; we work to do our best.

How long have you been illustrating?
Leo: We've been illustrating for about 46 years, I think.

What was your first book?
Diane Dillon: The very first picture book was The Ring and the Prairie by John Bierhorst. That was a Native American tale. The very first chapter book was Hakon of Rogen's Saga by Eric Hagard.

How did you become an illustrator?
Leo: We always wanted to illustrate, like most children we grew up looking at picture books. When we went to school we were looking at a lot of the illustrators around then who were doing very beautiful work; we wanted to do that too. We didn't start out as wanting to be illustrators; we started out as wanting to be artists.
Diane: That's a long story. I think we went to art school and as we began to get more experience and learn more, we began to see what the world of art was, and how many choices there were. It's that point when we were going to art school, that we finally made that decision [to become illustrators].
Leo: We were not trained as illustrators; we were trained as graphic designers. There doesn't have to be a separation between any of the disciplines.

Hi from Austin, Texas third graders. Where are you today? What kinds of paints do you use? Do you use the same kinds in all your books? Has your artwork ever been shown in museums?
Diane: We're in Brooklyn, New York. We're 20 minutes from the City [Manhattan], in a nice community. We live in a nice brownstone; our studios are in our house so we don't have to leave.
Leo: We use all of kinds of media; for Rap a Tap Tap we used acrylics and gouache; for other books we've use pastel and tempera. We've painted in oil. Whatever media fits our needs we will use.
Diane: Yes, we have been shown in museums: the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Chicago Museum of Art, there's one in Michigan, but I don't remember the name.

Do you keep a notebook of ideas for future projects?
Diane: We jot them down sometimes on pieces of paper and file them away. Sometimes we don't look at them again. But usually with the two of us we can talk about those ideas and so one of us usually remembers.

Hello from West Gordon Elementary students in Valdosta, Georgia. How can we get our illustrations published?
Diane: You need to have a portfolio of your work, showing samples of things that would be appropriate for picture books. Then you contact publishers and show them your work. Iif they like it, they will give you a manuscript to do. It's a long process, contracts have to be done and signed, and a lot of planning.
Leo: And one must not get discouraged.

Why do some of your books take place in Africa, and how did you get chosen by the author to illustrate Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears?
Leo: We were chosen by an editor to illustrate Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears because she had seen a cover we did for a young adult novel and she liked the graphic style. Of course, when we did Mosquitoes the style changed, as things usually do when we work on them.
Diane: We are interracial and we decided early in our career that we wanted to represent all races and to show people that were rarely seen in children's books at that time.

Have you ever been to Africa?
Leo: No. I think we have been to very few places. But we've been everywhere in books.
Diane: We travel in books.

We are reading Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears. How many other books have you illustrated? Which is your favorite?
Diane: We've illustrated over 40 books and they are like our children, we don't really have a favorite. Some were much harder to do than others, but we have always been attached to each thing we've done.

How many illustrations do you do in each book?
Diane: Fourteen double page spreads or about 28 single page. It varies. Anywhere from 14-20 pages.

Do you like illustrating? What's your favorite thing about it?
Leo: We love illustrating and I suppose we can say we love everything about it. It's very difficult; it causes us immense pain (sometimes), but like all things that cause pain if it's worth doing, the outcome will be very pleasurable.
Diane: It's always exciting because every new job is unique and different. Each new story has its own challenges.

Hi from Lower Heidelberg Elementary School in Pennsylvania. Did you draw a lot as a young child?
Leo: Yes, we did. Our first memory was of drawing.

How did you feel when you drew your first book?
Diane: We were very excited and we got a thrill seeing it in print - and seeing our name printed. It took a long time to get there.

Do you find it easier to illustrate or to write books, and is it easier to illustrate your own books or other people's?
Leo: We seldom write. Rap a Tap Tap was our first, and it seems that when we write, we make it more difficult for ourselves than when we work for other authors.
Diane: Maybe it's the freedom. It's sometimes difficult to work with so much freedom. Maybe we are more dedicated to following the script, when it's written by someone else.
Leo: If we are using Rap a Tap Tap as an example, the idea was wonderful, and the words came fast, but we realized that we had caused ourselves many graphic problems.
Diane: The words were so simple, we had to really think about building a complete picture on 32 pages and the graphics couldn't be as simple as the words. They had to fill in and tell the story that the words didn't mention.

How did you come up with the ideas for your illustrations for Rap a Tap Tap?
Diane:
The subject matter gave us the start. We knew it was about Bojangles and we knew that he was famous during the 30s and 40s, so we thought of showing him dancing through the streets of New York City, and we researched the street scenes at the library from that time. And we researched pictures of him dancing.
Leo: Since he was dancing at the time of the Harlem Renaissance we looked at the work of Aaron Douglas [an African-American painter and illustrator], who in our minds epitomized the most beautiful graphic aspects of that time period.

What book do you want to illustrate next?
Diane: We have several books that we've agreed to illustrate. We have two in the process of being printed that we've finished already. The next book that we'll be illustrating is about bird stories from around the world. That should be fun.
Leo: We always think it will be fun until we start.

Do you ever have other people help you with your research?
Diane: We did only once.
Leo: Seldom, we usually like to do our own research, because we know what it is we are looking for.

How long does it take to make one of your books?
Diane: Our research is different than what a writer needs. We usually need pictures of things, written descriptions are helpful, but a picture is much better.

Do you listen to music while you draw? If so, what kind?
Leo: I listen to jazz.
Diane: I listen to new age music. I like peaceful things; I also like to listen to talk shows.

Do you visit local schools to talk to the kids about the importance of writing and drawing?
Diane: No, we don't. It takes a special talent to keep young people interested. Usually they sneak out when we are talking about techniques and our life illustrating. So we usually talk more to librarians and teachers and then they take the information back to the young people.

What kind of stories do you like to illustrate: fiction, nonfiction, history, biography, any kinds of stories?
Leo: We like to illustrate all of those, when we find a story that really inspires us. Most of the picture books have been fiction.
Diane: We do mostly myths, folktales, and fantasy.
Leo: But we have done historical illustrations.
Diane: But not for picture books, for textbooks.

If you did not become an illustrator, what would you be?
Diane: I can't imagine being anything else really.

Where were you born? When is your birthday? How old are you now?
Leo: I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My birthday is March 2 and I will be 70.
Diane: My birthday is March 13 and I will also be 70. We're 11 days apart. I was born in Glendale, California.

What are the names of the two new books that are being published?
Diane: One Winter's Night [published by Philomel Books], it was written by John Herman. The other one is Where Have You Been? written by Margaret Wise Brown; it's a reprint. It's HarperCollins. They'll both be out in 2004.

Your work is incredibly beautiful and thought-provoking. Thank you.
Diane: Books have made a great difference in our lives, they've inspired us and taken us to other places and we feel so proud to now be a part of that book world and hopefully to bring other people [the same] pleasures we've had.
Leo: Make life an art.

  • Subjects:
    Visual Arts
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