By Kelley Walker Perry, Contributing Writer
BOXBOROUGH – Jackie French Koller’s imagination has made her life story anything but dull.
“I’ve had an unusual career,” she admitted.
She loved to draw as a child and contemplated becoming an artist, but her pragmatic father, an electrical engineer, informed her that “art is a hobby.” So, Koller shelved that dream and entered the insurance field. She lived in Connecticut, after all, where there was no dearth of that type of work.
“Art stayed on the back burner for years and years,” she said.
A new vocation
Koller discovered a new ambition while raising her three children. They would bring home stacks of books from the local library. Reading them, she knew she could make up stories at least as good–maybe better. Because her kids ranged in age from kindergarten through junior high, they inspired constant writing ideas to satisfy every age group.
Although Koller was an avid lifelong reader, she was surprised to discover that she was a natural-born author. “It just never occurred to me that I could become a writer,” she said.
She certainly never imagined that she would have a thriving career as a children’s book author. It took 10 years to get noticed by publishers; but after her first book, “Impy for Always,” was accepted, others soon got snapped up. It helped that Koller was a more prolific writer than most, producing several stories in a single year.
Her most successful novel, “Nothing to Fear,” follows a teenage boy and his struggling family in New York during the Great Depression. She interviewed her own mother to glean firsthand information. Senior citizens check out the book more often at libraries than the sixth- and seventh-grade students who were the intended audience.
“It’s kind of a crossover,” she said.
A variety of genres
Koller’s work spans several different genres. She has written over 30 award-winning picture books, young adult novels and a popular fantasy series called “Dragonling.” The series, in print for over 30 years, was just reissued in 2020. One of her books became a Disney Channel movie, and people are still reading aloud her fantastical stories on YouTube.
When it comes to historical fiction – especially about her native New England – she prefers not to take much artistic license. Instead, she carefully researches, grounding the stories in truth.
She feels a responsibility to reality, she said.
Some of her work – such as “The Liberty Pole,” a serialized novel – has been included in Massachusetts school curricula. Koller is rewriting the book for a slightly older audience. It’s longer and more detailed about Colonial American families to make it as accurate as possible while still remaining a work of fiction. Besides that, Koller isn’t writing much anymore.
After her last child left for college, she began a new chapter in creativity and attended watercolor classes at the Springfield Museum School of Fine Arts.
“I just loved it and found out I could do it, and that I was good at it,” she said.
In 2004, she opened the Little Black Dog Gallery in Westfield. The gallery, namesake of her runty Labrador retriever, was housed in a lovely old Victorian building – the perfect setting for art, a small café and bookstore. It was a dream fulfilled for Koller, and soon became the neighborhood hangout.
Although the gallery is closed, Koller continues to paint watercolors of her favorite things: mostly, the landscape around her Cape Cod cottage, where she spent idyllic summers with her late husband George and, of course, dogs.
She volunteers her time and expertise at Household Goods, where people in need can get items to make a house a home. “I am, surprise, surprise, in the art department,” she chuckled. When people donate art, Koller takes the pieces home, cleans and refurbishes them with love.
Soon, the versatile 73-year-old plans to turn another page by raising Labrador puppies. After 12 months, she will release them to be used as service dogs for blind, hearing impaired and autistic clients.
“The hardest part will be giving them away,” she said.