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Leo Dillon; artist worked on acclaimed children’s books

NEW YORK — Leo Dillon, who with his wife and longtime collaborator, Diane, was one of the world’s preeminent illustrators for young people, producing acclaimed artwork that was a seamless amalgam of both their hands, died Saturday in Brooklyn. He was 79.

The cause was complications of surgery for lung cancer, according to the Dillons’ publisher, ­Scholastic, which announced the death.

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The Dillons, who met in art school, became instant archrivals and remained together from then on. They won two Caldecott Medals, considered the nation’s highest honor for children’s book illustration.

The first, in 1976, was for ‘‘Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears,’’ a West African folk tale retold by Verna Aardema; the second, in 1977, was for ‘‘Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions,’’ by Margaret Musgrove.

Mr. Dillon was the first African-American to receive the Caldecott; the couple remain the only ­illustrators to have won it two years in a row.

The dozens of books for children and adults illustrated by the Dillons include titles by Ray ­Bradbury, Virginia Hamilton, P.L. Travers, and the soprano Leontyne Price, whose 1990 picture-book adaptation of ­Verdi’s ‘‘Aida’’ was praised for its Egyptian- and African-inspired artwork.

Though artistic teams have long collaborated on illustrated books, it is far more common for one partner to furnish the text and the other the pictures. It is far less common for both to make the art in tandem, as did the Dillons, who began their career jointly illustrating album covers and jackets for adult science-fiction books.

Their modus operandi, honed over time, involved an initial discussion of their visions of the text. When these were more or less reconciled, one of them made preliminary sketches, which were passed to the other for coloring, then passed back for refine­ment.

After sufficient back-and-forth and sufficient spirited argument, the resulting image appeared, they often said, to have been the work of an unseen but very much present third party, whom they called ‘‘It.’’

The Dillons’ work was characterized by stylistic diversity, with influences ranging over African folk art, Japanese woodcuts, old-master paintings, and medieval illumination.

It was also noteworthy for the diversity of the people it portrayed. This was especially striking in the 1970s, when the Dillons began illustrating for children: Until then, the smiling faces portrayed in picture books had been overwhelmingly white.

Their emphasis on inclusion sprang from their experience as an interracial couple. As they often explained in interviews, after their son, Lee, was born in the 1960s, they surreptitiously colored the skin of characters in the picture books they bought him, recasting them as black, Hispanic, and Asian.

The son of parents who had come to the United States from Trinidad, Lionel John Dillon Jr. was born in Brooklyn on March 2, 1933.

He enlisted in the US Navy so that he could attend art school afterward on the GI Bill. After three years’ service, he enrolled at the Parsons School of Design in New York.

A picture book written and illustrated by the Dillons, ‘‘If Kids Ran the World,’’ is scheduled to be published in 2014.

Besides his wife, Mr. Dillon leaves their son, Lee, a sculptor and studio jeweler.

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