Author's 'Balloon Farm' grew from a project for an elementary school class


Jerdine Nolen's popular children's book, "Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm," started as a school project for a money unit she was teaching to her first- and second-grade class.

"The culminating activity was to turn the classroom into a store to give the kids a chance to spend their money," Ms. Nolen recalled. "I didn't want to be a grocery store or bank, and I was thinking one day and said, 'I know, we'll be a farm, we'll be a balloon farm.' "

The classroom activity was a success and the idea stuck with Ms. Nolen. That summer, 12 years ago, she wrote the story.

She was rejected 14 times when she tried to sell the story before Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books of New York accepted the fanciful tale in 1990.

The book is in its third printing, with more than 40,000 copies in circulation, said Jazan Higgins, vice president and director of children's marketing for William Morrow.

Ms. Nolen will bring "Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm" to life next week as she visits all five Carroll County Public Library branches. She will read the story and autograph copies of the book.

Though the story times are suggested for ages 4 and up, all ages, from under 4 to grandmothers, will enjoy this cheerful, colorfully illustrated story of a simple southern farmer and the little girl who emulates him.

"It's a real cute book," said Susan Roberts, program coordinator for the Carroll County Public Library. "It's very appealing to both children and adults. I've heard Ms. Nolen is a very entertaining speaker and I hope parents will come out with their children to hear her."

In Ms. Nolen's book, Harvey Potter is no ordinary farmer. He grows balloons, but only at night. The town busybody complains to the government, which inspects the balloons, but finds nothing illegal.

The narrator, a young African-American girl, is curious about Harvey Potter's activities and stays up one night to find out how he grows his balloons. She decides to be a farmer just like him when she grows up.

"It's a story about hope, about being as human as you possibly can," Ms. Nolen said. "It's a story about relationships, too. The thing that works for me is the page when she sits on the porch with Harvey Potter and he just lets her be herself."

Ms. Nolen, who has two children 4 and 6, drew on her life experiences to write the book. Her parents grew up on farms and she was raised outside of Chicago.

"If the story were true, it would have taken place when people sat on their porches weaving these kinds of tales," she said. "When I was growing up, you didn't watch TV after dinner, you sat around with each other and talked.

"I felt if Harvey Potter did exist, it would be in a small rural town, in an earlier time when people weren't quite so educated. The story told itself to me like that."

The text is illustrated by Mark Buehner of Salt Lake City. His drawings are colorful, fanciful and dreamy, in line with the book's premise that dreams do come true.

Ms. Nolen's dreams came true, but it took a lot of hard work, she said. She published her first poem in a school newspaper when (( she was in second grade. Now 42, she has published other pieces in textbooks -- including "Harvey Potter" -- and children's magazines.

"Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm" was chosen by People Magazine as a good Christmas gift for children, and one of its illustrations has been made into a 75-piece puzzle, Ms. Nolen said.

A second book, "Mama's Kitchen," is slated for publication in 1996 or 1997, Ms. Nolen said.

tTC A former teacher in Baltimore County public schools, Ms. Nolen is a curriculum specialist in the English/Language Arts Office there. She has a bachelor's degree in education, special education and elementary education from Northeastern Illinois University, and a master's degree in interdisciplinary education from Loyola University in Chicago. Her husband, Tony Harold, is an school administrator in Baltimore County.

Story times are scheduled as follows: 10 a.m. Monday at Eldersburg, 6400 W. Hemlock Drive, 795-3520; 1 p.m. Monday at Mount Airy, 705 Ridge Ave., 795-1010; 10 a.m. Tuesday at Taneytown, 10 Grand Drive, 751-1980; 1 p.m. Tuesday at Westminster, 50 E. Main St., 848-4250; and 10 a.m. Wednesday at North Carroll, 2255 Hanover Pike, 374-1212. Registration is required.

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