Ellicott City author Jerdine Nolen taps into children's 'sense of wonder'
By By Kellie Woodhouse
Feb 02, 2012 | 2:56 PM
The idea for Jerdine Nolen's first book sprang from an uneventful summer afternoon almost 25 years ago spent scrubbing the toilet.
"I was cleaning my bathroom, and this little voice said, 'Harvey Potter was a very strange fellow indeed,' " Nolen, 58, recalls as she sits barefoot at her Ellicott City kitchen table sipping tea. "That was the thought that floated up to me. I had no idea what it was attached to, but when you explore through your writing you can come up with anything."
The idea ended up being the first eight words of her first picture book, "Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm," about a thoughtful, unique balloon farmer who lives in a small, rural town.
"He farmed a genuine balloon farm. That's where the magic and the invention come from ... actual balloons coming from the ground," Nolen says of the book, which she published in 1994 (three years prior to J.K. Rowling's first wizard fantasy whose star, Harry Potter, has a coincidentally similar name).
"Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm" was her first published work with a fantastical but meaningful story line, but it wouldn't be her last. She's penned a novel and 12 other children's books about everything from a pickle museum to baby dragons to the nostalgia of spending time in Momma's kitchen.
Nolen, born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago, grew up with seven siblings and a father who was a preacher. As a kid listening to her father's messages, Nolen became mesmerized by stories and sermons.
"I saw the power of words," she says. "I saw how my dad would practice his speeches around the house, and he would give them on Sunday and he would move people. I saw how language and words stopped you in your tracks.
"I remember saying to myself: I am going to do that one day," Nolen adds.
For Nolen, putting words on paper seemed as natural as her father's sermons from the pulpit.
"Words make you laugh; they move you to feel; they move you to see," she says. "If you spend the time to make (a story) work, it's like a beautiful pearl necklace."
Nolen, who has two adult children -- a son and a daughter -- says that writing for children in particular has always been something she's enjoyed.
Before Nolen became a high school teacher, she taught elementary-age children. Today, she delights in the fan mail she receives from her young readers.
"Children are naturally wonderful," Nolen says. "I've always enjoyed that sense of wonder that you get from a child, how a child (is) so open and honest. Most of my books tap into that sense of wonder and fun."
Although children's books have been her bread and butter, Nolen says that she is looking to write another novel.
In 2011, Nolen published a novel for young adults titled "Eliza's Freedom Road," about a young slave who escaped to Canada using the underground railroad network. Unlike many of her picture books, Nolen's novel was practical and realistic.
While writing the book, Nolen spent countless hours researching slavery and slave histories at several different libraries, including the Library of Congress inWashington, D.C.
Nolen says the challenge was rewarding.
"I think I'll always write picture books. I don't ever want to stop doing that because those are so fun, but I certainly want to get into writing fiction for older people, too," Nolen says.
But for Nolen, writing transcends genre or age -- it's about creating a product that adds something positive to someone's life.
"That's really my goal," she says. "It's about leaving a place better than you found it."