“Stories help us examine and shape the world we live in. Stories give us hopeful answers and insights to questions no one person can answer on their own — stories help us share our lives. This is what I love about being a writer.”
So says Jerdine Nolen–wife, mother of two, educator, school administrator, and author of numerous picture book titles, at least 11 of which are currently in print: Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm, In My Momma’s Kitchen, Raising Dragons, Big Jabe, Plantzilla, Plantzilla Goes to Camp, Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life, Max and Jax in Second Grade, Lauren McGill’s Pickle Museum, Thunder Rose…and her latest, Pitching in for Eubie (Amistad/HarperCollins).
Since 1994, she has consistently entertained the young (and the young at heart), with her imaginative and tender tales of family, folklore and childhood. It is an honor and a privilege on this 21st day of our campaign, to present to some and introduce to others, Vanguard Picture Book Author, Ms. Jerdine Nolen.
BBS: Welcome to the Brown Bookshelf, Jerdine.
JN: Thank you very much—and what a pleasure and a privilege for me.
BBS: You’ve stated that writing and words have been an important part of your life for as long as you can remember. You even “collected” words. Tell us about this formative part of your youth.
JN: When I do school and library visits I love to tell young people about my young life. I think we are all so eager to know about each other. I remember feeling desperate and starved to hear the stories of my parents’ childhood. It didn’t matter what it was they were telling me, how they walked to school or got in trouble. I simply loved hearing about when they were my age—in “the olden days.” So, when students ask what I did for fun when I was a little girl, I tell them about “my olden days.”
I don’t think I was ever bored as a child. I was always making up games. I enjoyed the company of my dolls or my little toy lamb, and I enjoyed my own company. Among some of the other things I did to amuse myself, I collected words. I collected words because I liked the way certain words sounded, what they meant, how they made me laugh because they sounded so silly. And I loved putting words together.
My mother noticed this tendency in me and gave me a hand with my deep and abiding desire. She gave me an empty cardboard cigar box. Then we made what would be the equivalent of index cards (the cardboard from my dad’s shirts from the dry cleaner, cut to size). Because I loved the sounds of words, some of them would give me a tickle. And certain words–words like “chutney” or “cucumber” or “watermelon”— these food words would crack me up just to say them. Words I thought sounded mighty silly, I wrote down on my makeshift index cards and kept them in my empty cigar box. It was my great treasure. If I ever needed to be entertained, or have a big belly laugh, I would look at my word supply. And I laughed a lot. Sometimes I played with the rhyme and rhythm or cadence of the words, too. It was fun. I mean it was really a lot of fun. I know what you’re thinking…and that’s o.k. because you had to be there to see just how fun it was!!!!! :o)
BBS: So what was it that made you decide to focus on writing in the picture book genre?
JN: I love the genre because it represents the sparkling and wonderful time of our lives: childhood. I love writing picture books because they are very child-centered and family-focused. The idea of creating a story (beginning, middle, end) within 2-5 typewritten pages is very magical, especially what comes after that. When the words are matched with illustrations—I consider this a kind of high magic. It is amazing to witness the way the process comes together.
JN: Writing picture books is a lot of hurry up and wait, and it is a long convoluted story. Sometimes I think the back-story of how a book appears on the shelf is just as amazing as the story itself. Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm was my first publication for the trade market. I wrote the story in the late 80s. It was accepted for trade publication in 1990 at Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books, a division of William Morrow. It did not publish in trade until 1994.
BBS: And that was the book which became a made-for-TV-movie called Balloon Farm. How unreal did it feel at the time, to have your very first book be so wildly popular that Disney wanted to make it into a movie?
JN: You said it…UNREAL. With a capital AWESOME. It’s was an amazing and an exhilarating experience to see my name float across the television screen, noted as the creator of the story.
BBS: After the success of Balloon Farm, how easy was it to get that next picture book deal?
JN: I don’t seem to remember any kind of difficulty or separation. I had already developed a good publishing connection with the editor of Balloon Farm who was interested in seeing the next thing. But, even before all the numbers were counted and scored, I had already written the next two books, In My Momma’s Kitchen, which I wrote just at the birth of my son. And at the time, an editor at a different publishing house contacted me, and what followed after was Raising Dragons. Both of these stories were “waiting in the wings” for submission.
BBS: So your second published book, Raising Dragons, wasn’t the second book you wrote?
BBS: Pitching in for Eubie (which I love) is your latest picture book. What was the inspiration for this story?
JN: Thank you, I love it, too. The inspiration for that story was my dear, dear, Mother. It is not the highfaluting, tongue-in-cheek silly humor; it is a story of family solidarity, togetherness and strength. It was based in part on a chapter from my mother’s life; and her desire for each of her eight children to get a college education—something she so wanted, but was not able to achieve for a variety of reasons.
BBS: You grew up in Chicago, yet I’ve noticed that many of your picture books are set on farms. Was farm life a significant part of your childhood?
JN: Both my parents grew up on farms, so it was significant and in a way, in my genes, I guess. I grew up in the City of Chicago. As we were growing up, my parents kept to their farming ways. They liked eating food that they knew where it came from. And they continued in their farming ways for most of my childhood. Thankfully, they were able to cultivate an acre of land in downstate Illinois. And they took their children with them, every step of the way. Every Saturday we loaded our tools and supplies and lunch into the van, and we headed about 2 hours south and we worked the land. Actually, farming wasn’t my cup of tea. The farming life was too hard for me. But, it made my parents happy. I mean they were actually glad about turning up the soil and planting things. At one point we had chickens in our backyard. I didn’t know why we didn’t have more normal pets like a cat or a dog, or even fish. I mean, there was nothing cute or cuddly about a chicken. They never came when you called them…but my sister Katie and I pretended they did. Unfortunately, we learned too soon that having chickens as pets was not the plan at all. Those chickens were really food in disguise. What a heartbreak. I think I stopped eating poultry for quite some time. So alas and alack, that is the story. I suppose in some deep part of me I wish I could farm. And so I dream and fantasize and write about it instead of actually doing it. I think that is a fair trade off. As my heroine admits to in Raising Dragons, “There are some things you just know!”
BBS: Your body of work is so wide-ranging: From In My Momma’s Kitchen to Plantzilla; Lauren McGill’s Pickle Museum to Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life. How do you manage to generate such a plethora of story ideas? Is there a common thread that runs through them all?
JN: I don’t know where the story comes from. It is an intriguing thing to think about, but I do not spend too much time considering or pondering this. Like Thunder Rose (my cowgirl heroine of the old west) says—and I agree—it is a wellspring that is “registered at the bull’s-eye, set in the center of my heart”. I think stories, good ones, have a universal message and appeal that connects us on a deep level. If there is a common thread, I think it is one of a search for each other and a search for self…and how that search is wrapped in a blanket of love. I think Mrs. Henryson, Mortimer Henryson’s mother in Plantzilla, says it best: “When you give a living thing love, you never know where it will lead.” I love to tell a good story well.
BBS: Did you ever have to fight to keep yourself from being confined to someone else’s “box”? To their idea of what types of stories you should stick to?
JN: I can’t say that has ever been an issue. I have been lucky and blessed with finding my own multi-layered voice, and beloved editors to support that.
BBS: Where do you find your muse? Is there a certain place where you feel most creative?
JN: I think my muse is all around me…at least the opportunities for creation are all around. I especially enjoy being in my home and with my family. Families do so many things to center us. At least that is true for me. I think all my stories come from a very real, heartfelt place…a desire to connect and be connected. When I look back on the landscape of my work, I see each story is attached to my family life in some way. I wrote Balloon Farm as a joke. I just wanted to tell a story that would make my father laugh. He had a great sense of humor and loved to laugh a hearty laugh. He especially loved to laugh hard and loud when it was warranted. I did what I set out to do. And he gave me the biggest compliment after he caught his breath. He said I was, “right witty.” To me, my dad was someone who really knew how to put words together.
BBS: Why do you still love writing for children?
JN: I guess I can’t help myself. I think the best and most we can do for ourselves is to find the thing we love to do, and then do it as if our very life depended upon doing it.
BBS: What new projects are you working on?
JN: I have a Christmas story, CHRISTMAS IN THE TIME OF BILLY LEE coming out next year with Hyperion. And I have written a novel with a working title of ELIZA’S DIARY to be released through Paula Wiseman Books. Both books will be released in 2011. And there’s IRENE’S WISH, a fairy tale for children with our fathers in mind. I am not sure of the pub date for that, maybe 2012.
BBS: Is ELIZA’S DIARY your first novel? What’s it about?
JN: Yes—YIKES! It is historical fiction written in a diary format. I don’t want to say anymore about it until it is closer to the pub date.
BBS: What’s the most important piece of advice you can give writers of color trying to make it in today’s children’s literature industry?
JN: The same advice I give to myself that I take because I have no choice in the matter. You have to believe in yourself. You must never give up on yourself in your quest to move the reader to feel and to see. You have to believe and know beyond a shadow, that what you are doing is something that matters. I feel as though I never had choice not to be a writer. I feel in my heart of hearts that writing chose me and this is what I must do. I have no choice but to write, and to write, and to write, because my very life depends on it. And to assume that, of course, everyone in the entire universe wants to read what I’ve written (no matter how scary saying that sometimes feels).
BBS: You are an educator, a writer and a parent. What charge would you give all three groups when it comes to “books” and “our children”?
JN: Be very generous with reading and with books. Foster the love of the written and spoken word. Slather your children and charges with generous amounts of excellent literature, and with writing. Talk with them…and wait and listen to what they have to say. Be conversational. Have intelligent conversations. Pretend you have at your disposal (to borrow from Maya Angelou) oil wells and diamond mines full of books, and use them unsparingly. Teach and show by example what it means to be a good problem solver, a good thinker. Show children how to use their intelligence to navigate a world that is yet to come. Reading and writing drives our ability to think.
My parents, like most parents, parented from the viewpoint of: “What was good for the goose is good for the gander.” Have you ever heard that expression? I heard it a lot when I was growing up. Both my parents grew up in rural Mississippi just 50 and so years after the end of the Civil War. Now the childhood life both my parents led was not good for any growing human, so even as a small child I knew this thinking was flawed. We must parent and teach our children to live in a world that is yet to come—and no one can even fathom what that will be…and it will be in such a very short span of time.
BBS: Thanks so much, Jerdine, for spending time and sharing your thoughts with us today.
JN: Thank you. This has been most enjoyable, and a delight to answer your questions. Best to you.
BBS: Before you go… Pickles or peanut butter?
JN: Hmmmm…decisions, decisions. Pickles first…and then on another day, smooth peanut butter and grape jelly and a cold glass of milk.
BBS: Basketball or ballet?
JN: Could I do BalletBasketball? I think it would be a lovely art form-y kind of sport?
BBS: Dragons or Dinosaurs?
JN: Dragons first, please.
Learn more about Jerdine at JerdineNolen.com
Author Photo Credit: Pat Cummings