I love when a story tells us more about someone or something well known. That’s exactly what today’s nonfiction picture book biography does.
Ronni Diamondstein has spent her life surrounded by books and immersed in the world of children’s literature. An avid reader since childhood, libraries, books, and writing have been her life’s work. As a school library media specialist and teacher in the United States and abroad, Ronni has nurtured her students’ creativity by sharing her love of reading with them. She has always been fascinated by Jackie Kennedy’s love of books and her career as an editor and was inspired to tell her story. Ronni lives in Chappaqua, New York, with her toy poodle Maggie Mae. You can learn more about her on her website or follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or BlueSky.
JACKIE AND THE BOOKS SHE LOVED is a nonfiction picture book biography about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and how her love of books really shaped her life. I had no idea she was an editor towards the end of her life or that she insisted on doing it the old school way (i.e., no perks because she was well known). And the illustrations by Bats Langley were a revelation to me! I know his work from the GROGGLE books by Diana Murray. This is a different style for him and it works! I love it!
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey? When did you start writing stories? What brought you to writing picture books and this specific book?
Ronni: I have been writing since I was a child. I wrote poems as a child and wrote and illustrated stories. I always found writing opportunities for myself in high school and beyond. When I was in college, I took a children’s literature course and for my final project I wrote and illustrated a picture book.
I was eight years old when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. I remember Jackie, especially how she led the country in mourning her husband. I was always interested in her style and admired her for becoming a book editor. After she passed away, I had an idea for a novel about her and started researching her and interviewing people who knew her. When I was talking to Margot Datz, the illustrator of Carly Simon’s children’s books that Jackie edited, she suggested that I write a children’s book. I have an extensive library of books about Jackie and the Kennedys. I first wrote a long chapter book that got no traction and then about five years ago I thought of a book about how reading and writing were a thread through her life. I knew that picture books bios were a great genre and began to work on this book.
Me: This is quite a unique angle on Jacqueline Kennedy and not a story we usually hear about her. What gave you the idea to tell this story about her from this angle?
Ronni: There were several adult books written about Jackie as an editor that I read. Having researched her for decades, I knew that she loved to read as a child and saw how books influenced her life. It was something that I had in common with her. As I said previously, reading and writing were a thread in her life, and I thought that was the story I wanted to tell. Emma Walton Hamilton once said, “I think you have to have a personal connection, and that’s what I am always looking to try to create: a personal way in to a story.” I hope I achieved that!
Me: You did! You mention in the back matter being fascinated by this story for a long time. How long did it take to bring this story to its final stages: from idea to published book?
Ronni: I started working on the novel in 1994 and then I got this idea for the picture book in 2018 so that is 24 years! I signed the contract for the book in August 2022 and it will be released on November 7th, so that’s another five years.
Me: Wow! 29 years! That’s an amazing amount of perseverance. Did you have to do a lot of research for this story? Can you tell us a bit about that process?
Ronni: I had been researching since 1994 and even when I wasn’t working on a book about Jackie, I still kept up with books about Jackie and I knew a lot about her. I did interview a few people who knew her. I had extensive notes and clippings over the years, so it was an enjoyable journey.
Me: I love that you included a “representative selection” list of books that Jackie edited in the back matter. Was this your idea or your editor’s idea to include?
Ronni: That’s a great question! In one of my very early drafts I included a lot of authors Jackie worked with and titles in the narrative. Then once I sold the book and we started to edit it, most were moved to the author’s note. Interestingly, at a sales presentation with Simon & Schuster who distributes the book for my publisher, Sky Pony Press, their team asked about references to the books that either Jackie read or edited. We already had some titles she read in the author’s note so my editor, Nicole Frail and I decided to include a list of books. Narrowing it down to 18 titles was a taunting task she edited nearly 100 books!
Me: I can only imagine the struggle to choose 18 out of 100 books! Bats Langley’s illustrations in this book are pitch perfect. I’m familiar with his fantasy work and was delighted to see his nonfiction work here. Did you have any illustration surprises? Any favorite illustrations?
Ronni: I had a lot of input in the illustrations, so I wasn’t surprised by much. Bats and I had a marvelous collaboration. I have such a vast library of books about Jackie and so I sent him numerous photographs. Many of the things you see in the book were in Jackie’s home. The horse statue of the cover is one example.
There was one spread that I didn’t expect–the last spread in the book. Readers will see how he brought my words to life in a very clever way. I think readers will love it as much as I do!
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Ronni: The advice I always give is READ, READ, READ! And WRITE, WRITE WRITE!
Read lots and lots of books! I was fortunate to have spent my life reading children’s books, starting with my job in college in the children’s room of the library to becoming a teacher and school librarian. Join writing groups, take writing workshops, find a writing community. My mentor Elizabeth Hall said you need to write every day and she was right about writing! There’s a great quote about writing from Jane Yolen: “Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.”
I have that quote above my writing desk! Great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Ronni.
Dear readers, this book releases next week (on November 7th). Keep an eye out for it. It’s a great picture book biography from a unique angle I had never heard of before.