Birth: c. 1959? in Fort Lauderdale, Florida
David Diaz is an illustrator whose career has progressed in a rather topsy-turvy way: he was awarded one of the most prestigious illustration honors in the United States--the American Library Association's 1995 Caldecott Medal--for only his second book project, a child's-eye view of the 1992 Los Angeles riots titled Smoky Night. 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." Reviewer Hazel Rochman characterized Diaz's artwork in Booklist as "powerful--pulsating and crowded; part street mural, part urban collage."
Smoky Night , written by Eve Bunting, depicts a young boy's reaction to rioting in the streets below his family's apartment in an ethnically diverse, large-city neighborhood. Although at the time he was undertaking his very first illustration assignment for a major publisher (Gary Soto's Neighborhood Odes), Diaz was also given the job of illustrating Bunting's text. The assignment was given on the strength of another 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; in his illustrations for the story, Diaz mixed his heavily outlined acrylic paintings using 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. In his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, as printed in Horn Book, Diaz recalled his first encounter with Bunting's text: "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 a headlong confrontation with the issue of rapport between different races, and the result is a memorable, thought-provoking book."
While many commentators found much to praise in Smoky Night, its status as 1995 Caldecott Medal recipient left some critics bewildered. As Cathy Collison noted in the Detroit Free Press, "'Smoky Night' is hardly well known, even among those who regularly peruse the children's shelves, and its appeal to children is debatable." One of the book's most outspoken critics, Michael Patrick Hearn, commented in an essay in Teaching and Learning Literature that Smoky Night was not an appropriate choice for the award. While acknowledging that "David Diaz is certainly a brilliant jacket and cover designer, one of the best in the business," Hearn added: "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 "tak(ing) up the gauntlet boldly" to illustrate a challenging text, New York Times Book Review contributor Selma G. Lanes maintained that 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 the award-winning 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." And in Marybeth Lorbiecki's Just One Flick of the Finger, urban teen violence is explored. The 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, (and) flashing color," according to Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman.
Less "message-oriented" books for children have also been graced by Diaz's unique artwork. Poet Gary Soto's highly acclaimed Neighborhood Odes features woodcut silhouettes that complement the collection's twenty-one poems in what Booklist's Carolyn Phelan called "an unobtrusive, playful way." Diaz and Smoky Night author Eve 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." Barbara Kiefer in School Library Journal maintained that "Bunting conveys her message softly, leaving the major role to Diaz." Kiefer added, "His distinctive style is well suited to the setting and the mood of the book." And Kathleen Krull's Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman 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 of the black child who battled polio to become a three-time gold medalist at the 1960 Olympic Games, 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's Ellen Fader, "as well as the beauty of her body in motion."
Diaz's work continues to impress critics. His illustrations for The Little Scarecrow were praised by a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who noted, "Hewing to an earthy palette of cornfield yellows, oranges, and greens, with shades of blue for contrast, Caldecott Medallist Diaz (Smoky Night) makes a dramatic departure, in a winsome interpretation." In a review of Roadrunner's Dance, Kate McClelland in the School Library Journal said, "Diaz's lush illustrations are highly stylized and done in a rich showy palette." Diaz's artwork has also been shown in an exhibit called "Going Home," held by the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature in Abilene, Texas, that featured more than fifty of his works. According to an interview with Kris Imherr in the Dallas Morning News, Diaz said the show, like the book Going Home, is meant to present "an understanding, an acceptance of our diversity of cultures and backgrounds."
Born c. 1959, in Fort Lauderdale, FL; married, wife's name, Cecelia (an artist); children: Jericho, Ariel, Gabrielle. Avocation: Ceramics, music. Education: Attended Fort Lauderdale Art Institute. Addresses: Home-- California. Office--c/o Harcourt Brace & Co., 1697 Robin Pl., Carlsbad, CA 92009-5037.
Graphic artist and illustrator. Worked variously as a newspaper illustrator, designer, and graphic artist in California, 1980--. Exhibitions: Diaz's art has been featured in several exhibits, including a 1997 exhibit by the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature
Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults , 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale, 2002.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2007.