Children's book author Jerdine Nolen remembers the first time she saw her name in print. As a second-grader, she wrote a Thanksgiving poem that was published in the school newspaper, and she kept her eyes glued to the pink publication while walking home.

"It was really a moment to behold to see my name in print," said the special-education teacher at Mount Hebron High School, who has published about a dozen books and picture books. Her latest work, a novel titled "Eliza's Freedom Road: An Underground Railroad Diary," is one of five books nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work — Youth/Teens.


Nolen said she discovered she was nominated for an Image Award in January via email from her editor, Paula Wiseman. In its 43rd year, the Image Awards are held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and will be aired on NBC on Friday, Feb. 17. Nolen said she will be flown to the event.

"I knew [the Image Awards] was a cool thing and stars were there. I've watched on occasion, and I know that it's important to have people recognize that you've done something important," said Nolen, an Ellicott City resident.

"I didn't know they had a children's literature [award], but I'm glad they do, because it shows how important literature is and how important children are."

"Eliza's Freedom Road," published last year by Simon and Schuster, is Nolen's first chapter book. Eliza is a girl who grows up during slavery in Alexandria, Va. Her mother has been sold, and Eliza is left with only a quilt and the stories her mother told her.

Nolen said she was inspired to write the book after her editor suggested she write a collection of folktales.

"As I started to write the stories, that storyteller's voice emerged, and I had to wonder, 'Who was that voice attached to?'" said Nolen. "As I allowed this voice to speak, this character emerged, Eliza. She tells the story of how her mother gave her these stories. Her escape narrative is told and interwoven in these stories her mother told her."

Nolen's nomination created a sensation at Mount Hebron High, from which her children graduated. She is featured on the school's website, and she said she's been interviewed for the school newspaper.

"She's spectacular," said Mount Hebron Principal Scott Ruehl. "We're all very excited for her. I've observed her working with kids in the classroom, and she has a great way of being sensitive to their needs while still holding them to high standards."

Born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago, Nolen developed a gift for storytelling while her parents recounted her family's history in colorful yarns and parables.

"I've always been writing," said Nolen, a graduate of Northeastern Illinois and Loyola University Chicago who moved to Maryland in 1987. "My mother would say that I was like John Henry. He was born with a hammer in his hand; she said I was born with a pencil in mine. I can't think of a time when I haven't been writing."

Nolen has written for such publications as children's magazine Ebony Jr., as well as for educational book publishers.

Among her most noted works is a 1994 picture book, "Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm," about a farmer who grows balloons. The book spawned a 1999 Disney television movie, "Balloon Farm," that starred Emmy Award-winning actor Rip Torn.

Nolen's book was published about three years before "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first of a series of best-selling fantasy novels by author J.K. Rowling.

"It caused a great deal of confusion because Harvey is not too different from Harry," said Nolen. "It is what it is, and in some instances [people] would ask for 'Harry Potter,' and the librarian or the bookseller got confused and gave them my book and vice versa, so it all works out."


Her other works include "In My Mama's Kitchen," vignettes of a little girl who says that everything good that happens in her home takes place in the kitchen, and "Raising Dragons," about a girl on a farm who raises a baby dragon.

Award nomination aside, Nolen said she hopes that "Eliza's Freedom Road" conveys "the power of the human spirit."

"Everything turns on a story. Stories give us hopeful messages of the way things could be," said Nolen. "Creating a community is the most wonderful thing, and creating a community around literacy and books is one of the most important things."