Jerdine Nolen (1953-)
Jerdine Nolen is an educator as well as the author of the popular picture books Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm and Raising Dragons, both of which chronicle marvelous and exuberant goings-on down on the farm. The two tales are told from the point of view of an African-American girl, and the language of the texts blends southern patois, rural colloquialisms, and big-hearted humor. Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm was the recipient of a number of awards and made first-time author Nolen something of an immediate success when her book was featured on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Morning News and in elementary classrooms around the United States.
Regarding her beginnings, Nolen once told Something about the Author (SATA): "While my mother was pregnant with me, she went South to care for her own mother, who was ill. That is how I came to be born in Crystal Springs, Mississippi." After the death of her grandmother four months later, Nolen's family returned to the North, where young Nolen was raised in Chicago with her five sisters and two brothers. Because of her family's strong Southern roots, Nolen felt like an outsider while growing up in the Midwest, and her Southern cultural heritage has found its way into several of her children's books.
Her family, with its use of both Northern and Southern dialect, influenced not only Nolen's ear for speech patterns, but her sense of humor as well. She was also influenced by the work of the writers, poets, and musicians whose works she discovered, from Paul Laurence Dunbar, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dr. Seuss to Kenneth Patchen, Paul Simon, and Nina Simone. "Growing up in such a large family, I had to have a good sense of humor—to make up for a lack of space," the author once told SATA. "My sisters and brothers were pretty funny, too—but my father said I was 'right witty.'" Because of her upbringing and her imaginative nature, Nolen developed an early love of words, and published her first poem—a Thanksgiving verse—in her school paper as a second grader. "It was printed on pink paper," Nolen reminisced to SATA, "and I still remember the joy I felt to see my name in print."
Nolen's love of words took her to Northeastern Illinois University, where she majored in special education, and then, after teaching several years, to Loyola University, where she earned a master's degree in education in 1981. She worked as an elementary and special education teacher in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Chicago, Illinois, before taking up duties at the Baltimore County Public Schools, where she has become an English and language arts specialist and a Title I specialist. (Title I is a federally sponsored entitlement program for schools with student poverty rates of fifty percent or higher.) All the while, she has been writing: for her students, for textbooks, and for her own personal enjoyment. Nolen's first book, Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, grew out of a 1984 classroom assignment. While teaching a first-and-second-grade combination class as part of a six-member team, she conducted a unit on money. As Nolen recalled to SATA: "We taught the students what money was, what it looked like, and we explored what it was for. For a culminating activity, each of the six classrooms were turned into stores within a single community. There was a bakery, a movie theater, a popcorn store, a book store, a food store, and a balloon farm. Some products were: balloons, wind socks (made from paper), small kites, and antique balloons made from paper maché. That summer, as I was scrubbing the tiles in my shower, I got the first line of what later developed into Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm: 'Harvey Potter was a very strange fellow indeed.' At the time I was writing that line, I had no idea that Harvey Potter was strange because he grew balloons. That was a delightful surprise. I guess there really is no wasted motion in the universe."
Harvey Potter is a farmer who grows multi-colored balloons atop long sturdy stalks lined up in resemblance to a corn field. His balloons are grown to order, shaped like clowns, monsters, and animals. When a young African-American girl decides to figure out how Harvey creates his balloon magic, she secretly watches Harvey dance at night in his field with his magic stick. Soon denounced by a jealous farmer and threatened by government inspectors, Harvey's future looks grim, but all turns out fine in the end; he retains his ranking as a government-certified balloon farmer. The little girl grows up to become a balloon farmer as well, but in her case the balloons are a root crop.
Horn Book's Ann A. Flowers called Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, "an excellent story" with the added attraction of Mark Buehner's "vivid, air-brushed illustrations of balloons with expressive faces in every size, color, and shape." Flowers also noted Nolen's "lively and unusual" narration of the imaginative tale, an observation shared by other critics. A Kirkus Reviews critic noted that "Nolen's writing has an oral lilt to it," and described the book as containing a "wonderfully appealing premise, skillfully developed." Booklist reviewer Mary Harris Veeder thought that "Nolen's 'true truth' style contrasts delightfully with the pictures of Harvey's crop." Writing in School Library Journal, Kathleen Whalin commented that Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm is "the best sort of fantasy—imaginative, inventive, and believable." Whalin concluded, "This title should sail into every library shelf. May Nolen grow a bumper crop of books."
Nolen published her second picture book, Raising Dragons, in 1998. Again she places her story in a rural setting and features a young African-American girl. Instead of balloons, however, in Raising Dragons the focus is an egg that is discovered near the young girl's farm. When it hatches, out pops a tiny dragon whom the girl proceeds, quite nonchalantly, to name Hank. "As I touched skin to scale, I knew I was his girl and he was my dragon," the girl comments. Her parents are more conservative about such matters and at first do not care for Hank. Their opinions change, however, when Hank starts helping out by sowing Pa's seeds and rescuing Ma's wilting crop of tomato plants. Hank ultimately grows to the size of a barn, and becomes a genuine full-grown, flying, fire-breathing dragon able to pop a whole field of corn with a single fiery breath. Soon forced by public opinion to flee to the volcanic island where other such creatures live, Hank leaves behind a special present for his human buddy: a wheelbarrow full of dragon eggs ready for the hatching.
Reviewing Raising Dragons, a Kirkus Reviews critic remarked that "Nolen unearths some unique livestock in this tale of a farmer's daughter who braves her parents' skepticism to hatch and raise a flying, fire-breathing dragon" and summarized the picture book as a "fresh and cheery tall tale, told in an appropriately matter-of-fact tone." Susan P. Bloom, building on the favorable mix of text and artwork, remarked in Horn Book that "Nolen's chimerical text meets its match in [Elise] Primavera's imaginative and bold acrylic and pastel illustrations." Bloom went on to point out that "author and artist both reach their peak when Hank's enthusiastically planted corn crop overflows," inspiring "the first dragon-popped popcorn anybody ever saw or tasted." A reviewer for FamilyFun remarked that "the whole fantastical tale is told with an engaging mix of matter-of-factness and awe," while a contributor to Working Mother wrote: "Seldom is a story so fanciful told in a voice so plain and true." The Working Mother critic went on to call Raising Dragons "a lovely book about nurturing, accepting differences, and embracing magic," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer dubbed it an "enchanting blend of the real and unreal." The author's understated tone, in the opinion of the same reviewer, "adds a layer of humor" when contrasted to the very unusual circumstances happening in the book. This same reviewer concluded that "youngsters will hanker to go on this journey; it will set their imagination soaring."
Soaring imaginations have continued to be Nolen's stock and trade. In addition, she has written humorous and homey tales, such as In My Momma's Kitchen. The book is a celebration of African-American families and mothers and fathers, told through a story of a family's year as witnessed by events in the heart of the family's home: the kitchen. Reviewing the picture book in Booklist, Hazel Rochman felt that though its depiction is "idyllic (not a hint of a quarrel or disagreement in this family)," Nolen's work is still "a great place to start kids telling stories of a special place at home." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that Nolen's "subtle details add color and depth to the proceedings," and concluded that "art and text work together to transport readers to a place where abundant love and sweet memories are staples of daily fare."
In Big Jabe Nolen presents an original tall tale about a special young man who does wonderful things for the slaves on the Plenty Plantation. "Part Moses, part John Henry" is how Booklist's Rochman described Nolen's hero. Found floating in a basket on the river as an infant, Jabe soon grows to gigantic proportions and has the strength of fifty men. He helps his people with hard labor and also in bad times helps them to disappear. Rochman felt that "Nolen dramatizes the strength of community and of story" with Big Jabe, while a reviewer for Publishers Weekly remarked that "folklore and history give an uncommonly rich patina to this freshly inspiring original tale set in slave times." The same reviewer called the book an "eloquent tale" that "empower[s] the audience to confront an unbearable history and come away with hope." And a contributor for Horn Book concluded, "This powerful story will be particularly effective shared aloud."
In Plantzilla, "Nolen delivers another picture book with a far-out premise and plenty of heart," observed a Publishers Weekly reviewer. When third-grader Mortimer Henryson gets permission to care for his class's unusual plant at his home over summer vacation, trouble ensues: the plant grows uncontrollably, moves about on its own, and develops a taste for fresh meat, a development coincidental with the disappearance of the family's Chihuahua. Nolen tells her story through a series of letters from Mortimer and his mom to Mr. Lester, the boy's science teacher, and according to Booklist contributor Lauren Peterson, much of the humor in the work comes from "the contrast between Mortimer's glowing reports of life with Plantzilla and frantic communications from Mortimer's mother." As the summer goes along, Plantzilla thrives under the boy's tender care and proves itself to be a valuable family member. "Readers, plant-lovers or otherwise, will find this vegetative visitor taking root in their affections," noted a critic writing in Kirkus Reviews.
In Irene's Wish a little girl gets her wish to spend more time with her father when he swallows seeds and turns into a tree, while a different young girl's obsession with pickles is at the heart of Lauren McGill's Pickle Museum. And in Max and Jax in the Second Grade, the eponymous twin alligators want to start off the summer right with a fishing trip and sleepover, but after Max's specially ordered lure fails to help him catch a fish, he uses his sister's homemade bait to land a rainbow trout. "Nolen shows a gift for straightforward dialogue that leaves readers feeling enchanted without being other-worldly," wrote School Library Journal contributor Louie Lahana, while a critic in Kirkus Reviews stated that Max and Jax "have plenty to offer, such as an example of harmony in the household, and the real gift: generosity."An African-American girl possessing extraordinary gifts is the protagonist of Thunder Rose, another tall tale penned by Nolen. Born on a stormy night, tiny but confident Rose astonishes her parents by rolling lightning into a ball, lifting a cow over her head, building a thunderbolt from scrap iron, halting a stampede, and inventing barbed wire. When tornadoes threaten the family ranch, Rose displays her gentler side, transforming the twisters into rain clouds by singing a lullaby. Rose "shows a reflective bent that gives her more dimension than most tall-tale heroes," stated a critic in Kirkus Reviews. Although a contributor in Publishers Weekly felt that Nolen's "packed plot slows the rhythms of her fun writing style," Booklist reviewer GraceAnne A. DeCandido called Thunder Rose "exuberant" and a "terrific read-aloud." In the words of School Library Journal critic Andrea Tarr, Thunder Rose is "a wonderful tale of joy and love, as robust and vivid as the wide West."
Loosely based on the story "Jack and the Beanstalk," Hewitt Anderson's Great Big Life concerns a brave but diminutive boy born into a family of giants. The J. Carver Worthington Andersons pride themselves on their heritage, because every member of their family has been a giant. However, that tradition ends when Hewitt comes along. In fact, Hewitt's tiny stature actually worries his loving parents; the small child often falls between the floorboards or gets lost in his enormous bed sheets. Hewitt's size has its advantages, though: he comes to the rescue when his father grows fearful after climbing a tall beanstalk, and Hewitt also assists his parents after they become trapped in a locked house. Reviewing Hewitt Anderson's Great Big Life, a Kirkus Reviews contributor concluded: "Nolen writes, as always, with a distinctive mix of humor and formality."
Despite her whimsical tall tales and humorous realistic snippets for young readers, Nolen explained to an interviewer for Publishers Weekly: "I'm really a very down-to-earth person." Stories are within each of us, the author contends, just waiting to get out. It is a matter of perseverance and hanging on to one's dreams that brings the stories out. "When I get in a writing jam, I ask myself, 'So, then what happens?" Your imagination won't let you down." Sage advice from a writer who typically autographs her books with the words, "Hold fast to your dreams as you would your balloons."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, April 15, 1994, Mary Harris Veeder, review of Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, p. 1541; April, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Raising Dragons, p. 1334; February 15, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of In My Momma's Kitchen, p. 1077; April 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Big Jabe, p. 1478. June 1, 2002, review of Max and Jax in Second Grade, Kathy Broderick, p. 1724; October 15, 2002, Lauren Peterson, review of Plantzilla, p. 413; October 15, 2003, Brian Wilson, review of Plantzilla (audiobook review), p. 445; November 1, 2003, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Thunder Rose, p. 505.
Christian Science Monitor, May 28, 1998, Karen Carden, review of Raising Dragons, p. B7.
Entertainment Weekly, April 8, 1994, Leonard S. Marcus, review of Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, p. 69.
FamilyFun, May, 1998, review of Raising Dragons, p. 116.
Horn Book, July-August, 1994, Ann A. Flowers, review of Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, pp. 442-443; March-April, 1998, Susan P. Bloom, review of Raising Dragons, p. 217; July, 2000, review of Big Jabe, p. 440. Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1994, review of Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, p. 401; March 1, 1998, review of Raising Dragons, p. 343; March 1, 2002, review of Max and Jax in Second Grade, p. 342; July 15, 2002, review of Plantzilla, p. 1040; May 1, 2003, review of Lauren McGill's Pickle Museum, p. 681; September 15, 2003, review of Thunder Rose, p. 1180; December 15, 2004, review of Hewitt Anderson's Great Big Life, p. 1206.
New York Times, December 1, 1994, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, p. B2.
New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1994, p. 32.
People, November 28, 1994, review of Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, April 11, 1994, review of Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, p. 65; July 4, 1994, "Flying Starts," pp. 36-41; March 9, 1998, review of Raising Dragons, p. 67; April 12, 1999, review of In My Momma's Kitchen, p. 75; April 17, 2000, review of Big Jabe, p. 79; May 7, 2001, review of In My Momma's Kitchen, p. 249; February 11, 2002, review of Max and Jax in Second Grade, p. 187; August 12, 2002, review of Plantzilla, p. 300; April 14, 2003, review of Lauren McGill's Pickle Museum, p. 70; October 6, 2003, review of Thunder Rose, p. 84.
School Library Journal, May, 1994, Kathleen Whalin, review of Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, p. 102; April, 1998, Faith Brautigan, review of Raising Dragons, p. 106; May, 1999, Tom S. Hurlburt, review of In My Momma's Kitchen, p. 94; June, 2000, Ellen A. Greever, review of Big Jabe, p. 122; April, 2002, Louie Lahana, review of Max and Jax in Second Grade, p. 118; July, 2003, Eve Ortega, review of Lauren McGill's Pickle Museum, pp. 102-103; September, 2003, Andrea Tarr, review of Thunder Rose, p. 186.
Smithsonian, November, 1998, p. 26.
Working Mother, June 19, 1998, review of Raising Dragons, p. 62.
Jerdine Nolen Web site, http://www.jerdinenolen.com (January 7, 2005).*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - CareerJerdine Nolen (1953-) Biography - Career, Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Member, Honors Awards, Adaptations