For more than 40 years, illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon have been working as one to become a “third artist,” as they say. As a result, they have won two Caldecott medals (Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema, 1975, and Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove, 1976).

The husband-and-wife duo each work in separate studios in their New York brownstone, but their artwork is completely collaborative—which makes them the ideal artists for the story of a community pulling together in hard times: The Secret River, a 1956 Newbery Honor book by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Through their illustrations, the Dillons portray a heroine literally fused with nature. When a drought hits, Calpurnia and her dog embark on a quest to fill her father’s fish market—armed with a tip from her kindly neighbor, Mother Albirtha, about a “secret river.”

Kirkus found this update of the classic story to be “magical” in a starred review. Here, we talk with the artists about bringing this tale to life.


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Nature’s inhabitants become characters in your vision of the events, as with the portrait of Calpurnia and her crown of bees and flowers, and the images of fish in the leaves of the trees. How did that idea evolve?

Diane Dillon: We feel that nature is alive and that there’s a spirit in everything—in the trees, in the animals. With Calpurnia’s thoughts about bees in her poem, in our way of thinking, why not show her and what she’s thinking, rather than show her writing a poem?

How did you develop the bond between Calpurnia and her dog, Buggy-horse, visually?

Leo Dillon: We never think in terms of people or animals. They really are all the same and have the same attitudes…

DD: And spirit.

LD: And spirit. We thought of the dog as another person, even with the movements of the head and body.

How do you collaborate?

LD: We’ve been doing it for so long it seems kind of ordinary to us. We do these little sketches, and we’re forever sketching back and forth. One person might draw the little girl, and the other will come along and draw in some trees. Finally when we get a thumbnail, a tiny sketch that we both like, it tells us what to do for the finished pencil drawing. Once we have the pencils done, and we get them approved by the editor and art director, then it’s merely a matter of painting. I say “merely” [laughs]. If anyone watched us doing it they’d say, “Of course!”

When you are at the painting stage, do you still work in separate studios?

DD: Yes. When it leaves my hands and goes to Leo’s it develops the way a picture develops over time. When it comes back to me, I don’t try to go back to what my original thought was. If I had in mind blues and purples, and it comes back pinks and oranges, I carry on from there. When we were awarded the first Caldecott, we were thrown into the larger world to speak about the way we work, and we realized we are a third artist, and that artist does something neither of us would do alone.

It’s not really new. When you read about some of the masters, like Rubens, he had a studio where different people had their own expertise. There were a lot of collaborations like that in painting history. They don’t often talk about it.

Do you think Rawlings’ story has something to teach readers today?

LD: Yes, especially in the times we’re living in now, with the economy failing. Here’s a family that supports each other through hard times, and they believe everything will come out all right if we stick together.

DD: And they’re proud. Even though their clothes are worn and have patches, they’re doing the best they can with what they have.

LD: We wanted to show an environment where everyone works together.

DD: The whole idea that the whole village or area is connected, that people are connected and their needs are similar, and there’s a caring about each other. For children, it’s inspiring.


Pub info:

The Secret River

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon

Atheneum / Jan. 4, 2011 / 9781416911791 / $19.99