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David ?)- Diaz (1959() Biography

Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

Born 1959, in New York, NY; Education: Attended Fort Lauderdale Art Institute, earned diploma. Hobbies and other interests: Ceramics, music.


Agent—c/o Author Correspondence, Lee & Low Books, 95 Madison Ave., Suite 606, New York, NY 10016.


Graphic artist and illustrator. Worked variously as a newspaper illustrator, graphic designer, and graphic artist in California, 1980—.

Honors Awards

Caldecott Medal, American Library Association, 1995, for Smoky Night.



Gary Soto, Neighborhood Odes, Harcourt, Brace (New York, NY), 1992.

Len Cabral, Anansi's Narrow Waist, Addison-Wesley (New York, NY), 1994, translated as La Cinturita de Anansi, 1995.

Eve Bunting, Smoky Night, Harcourt, Brace (New York, NY), 1994.

Eve Bunting, Going Home, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.

Marybeth Lorbiecki, Just One Flick of a Finger, Dial Books (New York, NY), 1996.

Eve Merriam, The Inner City Mother Goose, 3rd edition, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.

Joseph A. Citro, Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Hauntings and Horrors, Chapters, 1996.

Kathleen Krull, Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman, Harcourt, Brace (New York, NY), 1996.

David Diaz

Pauline Cartwright, Table for Two: An African Folktale, Celebration Press (Glenview, IL), 1996.

Eve Bunting, The Christmas House, Harcourt, Brace (New York, NY), 1997.

Eve Bunting, December, Harcourt, Brace (New York, NY), 1997.

Richard Wilbur, The Disappearing Alphabet, Harcourt, Brace (San Diego, CA), 1998.

Margaret Wise Brown, The Little Scarecrow Boy, Harper-Collins (New York, NY), 1998.

Eric A. Kimmel, Be Not Far from Me: The Oldest Love Story: Legends from the Bible, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.

Nancy Willard, Shadow Story, Harcourt, Brace (San Diego, CA), 1999.

Afi Scruggs, Jump Rope Magic, Blue Sky Press (New York, NY), 1999.

Joyce Carol Thomas, The Gospel Cinderella, HarperCollins (New York NY), 2000.

Rudolfo A. Anaya, Roadrunner's Dance, Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY), 2000.

Sharon Creech, The Wanderer, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.

Sarah Weeks, Angel Face, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2002.

Nancy Andrews-Goebel, The Pot That Juan Built, Lee & Low Books (New York, NY), 2002.

José Feliciano, Feliz Navidad!: Two Stories Celebrating Christmas, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2003.

Sharon Creech, A Baby in a Basket: New-Baby Songs, Joanna Cotler Books (New York, NY), 2004.


David Diaz is a successful graphic and commercial artist who decided to illustrate picture books as a creative outlet. Choosing his projects carefully, he quickly established himself as an illustrator of high reputation, winning a Caldecott Medal in 1995 for his work on Smoky Night. Since then he has tended not to repeat himself, using a variety of media to enliven an array of titles from folk tales to nonfiction. New York Times Book Review correspondent Bill Ott observed that Diaz's images "reveal the way finished art integrates multiple levels of detail into a coordinated whole."

Born in New York City, Diaz grew up in Florida. He decided on a career in the arts so early in life that he did not even know the word "illustrator"—he said he wanted to be a "drawer." Diaz recalled in an online interview with Lee & Low Books that he was filling out a phonics sheet in first grade when he came to a picture of a nose. Taking a break from the assignment, he added a whole face to the nose—and he never looked back. He has been a "drawer" ever since.

Diaz graduated from the Fort Lauderdale Art Institute and moved to Southern California, where he established himself as a designer and illustrator for companies and newspapers. He moved into illustration in the early 1990s because, he said, he did not want to regret having missed creative opportunities later in life. In 1994 he was offered the opportunity to illustrate a picture book about the Los Angeles riots entitled Smoky Night. Smoky Night, written by Eve Bunting, depicts a young boy's reaction to rioting on the streets below his family's apartment in an ethnically diverse large-city neighborhood. Diaz was given the job of illustrating Bunting's text on the strength of a book he had designed which interspersed found objects and drawings to reflect a summer spent in Brazil. That style would find its way into Smoky Night as well. In his illustrations for the story, Diaz mixed his heavily outlined acrylic paintings incorporating soothing blue, purple, and green tones with collages of photographs of common objects. In the series of illustrations depicting the looting of a grocery store, for instance, his artwork is layered over a photographed backdrop of spilled cereal. As Diaz recalled of his first encounter with Bunting's text in his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, as printed in Horn Book: "Eve Bunting had taken a timely subject and had handled it in a truly sensitive and thoughtful way. I felt the book could have a positive effect and help erode barriers of prejudice and intolerance. And above all, it was a book that could be part of the post-riot healing process."

Diaz's attempts to make his work part of the "post-riot healing process" were noted by several critics. Commenting on the illustrator's deliberate efforts to make characters of diverse ethnic backgrounds appear physically similar, a Publishers Weekly critic asserted that "even the artwork here cautions the reader against assumptions about race." Likewise, Ellen Fader observed in Horn Book that "Diaz's bold artwork is a perfect match for the story…. Because each double-page spread is so carefully designed, because the pictorial elements work together harmoniously, the overall effect is that of urban energy, rather than cacophony. Both author and illustrator insist on an headlong confrontation with the issue of rapport between different races, and the result is a memorable, thought-provoking book."

With Smoky Night, Diaz—still a novice in the picture book industry—won one of the most prestigious illustration honors in the United States—the American Library Association's 1995 Caldecott Medal. Commenting on Diaz's illustrations, Caldecott Award Selection Committee chair Grace W. Ruth was quoted in School Library Journal as saying: "Smoky Night is dramatic and groundbreaking. Diaz uses thickly textured, expressionistic acrylic paintings to portray a night of urban rioting from a child's perspective." And reviewer Hazel Rochman characterized Diaz's artwork in Booklist as "powerful—pulsating and crowded; part street mural, part urban collage."

While many commentators found much to praise in Smoky Night, its status as a Caldecott Medal recipient aroused some controversy. One of the book's most out-spoken critics, Michael Patrick Hearn, commented in an essay in Teaching and Learning Literature: "Taken individually, the rugged, flat designs in heavy outline and simple contour and raw color are indeed striking, but after a while their stylized, detached imagery is a bit numbing. There is a terrible sameness from spread to spread. … I never imagined a riot could appear quite so benign as this." Similarly, while praising Diaz for choosing to illustrate a challenging text, New York Times Book Review contributor Selma G. Lanes maintained that awards committees have a "tendency to reward flashiness over substance. Often such glitzy illustrations accompany subject matter that is of the moment, politically fashionable, and decidedly correct…. Smoky Night falls into this … category of knock-'em-dead artwork for an au courant if less than riveting story."

In addition to Smoky Night, Diaz has illustrated several other picture books that feature urban settings and social problems. In The Inner City Mother Goose, Eve Merriam's poetic reflection on the problems of the inner city is republished for a young adult audience and imbued with new life through Diaz's bold use of color and line. Carolyn Phelan praised the artist's work in a Booklist review, noting that his "small, intense paintings create portraits rich in composition, color, and gesture." Phelan added: "The images, almost mythic in their sense of representing more than individual people, seem to move with the rhythm of the verse."

In Marybeth Lorbiecki's Just One Flick of a Finger, urban teen violence is explored. A young man's act of taking a gun to school to ward off a local bully is portrayed by Diaz in his characteristic heavy style against a "background [that] evokes a kind of feverish excitement with neon-lit graffiti, peeling walls, flashing color," according to Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman. December, also by Eve Bunting, explores the sad fate of a homeless child who takes solace in the picture of an angel that he has pinned to the side of the cardboard box in which he lives. When Christmas comes, an act of kindness the boy and his mother perform leads to a visit from an angel, who helps to improve their circumstances. Grace Oliff in School Library Journal concluded that Diaz's woodcuts for this title "amplify the theme."

Diaz tends to imbue each book project he takes with an individual flair and a unique theme. Poet Gary Soto's highly acclaimed Neighborhood Odes features woodcut silhouettes that complement the collection's twenty-one poems in what Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan called "an unobtrusive, playful way." Diaz and Bunting collaborated again on Going Home, a 1996 picture book featuring a migrant worker family returning to the Mexican town of their birth. Calling the work a "veritable treat for the eyes," a Publishers Weekly reviewer added that Diaz "sets his artwork within photographic backdrops that show gaily painted pottery, folk art figurines, Mexican Christmas decorations, festive flowers and other shiny holiday trinkets." "Bunting conveys her message softly, leaving the major role to Diaz," maintained Barbara Kiefer in School Library Journal. "His distinctive style is well suited to the setting and the mood of the book." Whimsical letters from the alphabet sneak across whole-page spreads in Richard Wilbur's The Disappearing Alphabet, a book that poetically muses about what happens to words when certain letters decide not to cooperate. Horn Book reviewer Jennifer M. Brabander commended Diaz's pictures for this book as "bold and appropriately playful."

One of Diaz's better known works is Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman. This picture book explores the inspiring life of Wilma Rudolph, who overcame childhood illnesses and racism to win multiple Olympic gold medals. Kathleen Krull's text is graced by "richly colored, stylized illustrations that—though painted—have the look and permanence of wood carvings" and a font of Diaz's own design, according to Booklist reviewer Michael Cart. In illustrating the story, Diaz uses watercolor, gouache, and acrylic in sepia tones in his characteristic stylized manner to "artfully capture [Rudolph's] physical and emotional determination," in the words of Horn Book correspondent Ellen Fader, "as well as the beauty of her body in motion."

Diaz uses a palette of autumn hues to illustrate The Little Scarecrow Boy, a story by the legendary children's author Margaret Wise Brown. The little scarecrow wants to follow his father into the field to scare crows but is told he is "not fierce enough." One day, determined to do his part, he ventures into the field and tries out an array of scary faces, finally finding one that sends the crows packing. A Publishers Weekly reviewer liked the way Diaz created scarecrow faces that are "a droll caricature of the kind of grimaces children concoct." The reviewer concluded: "This scarecrow boy may be made of straw, but he's all heart."

The Pot That Juan Built introduces youngsters to artist Juan Quezada, a Mexican potter famous for reviving Native American techniques. The story by Nancy Andrews-Goebel uses built rhymes to explain the process of creating a new pot, and, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "The glowing tones of the artwork capture the sweep and heat of the sun-bleached landscape." The critic deemed the book "inventive and engrossing."

Diaz enjoys teaching children how to draw at workshops, and he is an avid reader. As for his own work for picture books, he said in an interview with Book Page's Alice Cary: "I never try to second-guess what's going to make kids laugh or hold their attention. I just try to make the images as appropriate to the text as possible. … I never try to make something cute just because it's for kids."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, June 15, 1992, Carolyn Phelan, review of Neighborhood Odes, p. 1838; March 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Smoky Night, pp. 1266-1267; April 15, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Inner City Mother Goose, p. 1432; May 1, 1996, Michael Cart, review of Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman, p. 1503; June 1, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of Just One Flick of the Finger, p. 1718; September 1, 1998, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Little Scarecrow Boy, p. 124.

Detroit Free Press, February 7, 1995, Cathy Collison, "View of Urban Riots Wins Children's Book Illustration Award," p. C1.

Horn Book, May-June, 1994, Ellen Fader, review of Smoky Night, p. 309; July-August, 1995, David Diaz, "Caldecott Medal Acceptance," pp. 430-433; September-October, 1996, Ellen Fader, review of Wilma Unlimited; September-October, 1998, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of The Disappearing Alphabet, p. 618.

New York Times Book Review, May 21, 1995, Selma G. Lanes, "Violence from a Distance," p. 25; February 9, 2003, Bill Ott, "Children's Books," p. 21.

Publishers Weekly, January 31, 1994, review of Smoky Night, p. 89; September 23, 1996, review of Going Home, p. 76; August 17, 1998, review of The Disappearing Alphabet, p. 70; August 26, 2002, review of The Pot That Juan Built, p. 68.

School Library Journal, March, 1995, "Newbery, Caldecott Medals Go to New Creators," p. 108; September, 1996, Barbara Kiefer, review of Going Home, p. 171; July 20, 1998, review of The Little Scarecrow Boy, p. 218; September, 2002, Ann Welton, review of The Pot That Juan Built, p. 209; September, 2003, Grace Oliff, review of December, p. 84.

Teaching and Learning Literature, September-October, 1995, Michael Patrick Hearne, "After the Smoke Has Cleared," pp. 54-56.


Book Page, http://www.bookpage.com/ (December 6, 2003), Alice Cary, "Fast Book to Honor World's Fastest Woman."

Lee & Low Books, http://www.leeandlow.com/booktalk/ (December 6, 2003), "David Diaz."*

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