cover image Big Jabe

Big Jabe

Jerdine Nolen. HarperCollins, $15.99 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-688-13662-8

Folklore and history give an uncommonly rich patina to this freshly inspiring original tale set in slavery times. Readers will immediately recognize that Nolen (Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm) has set her sights high: the tale opens with an unmistakable reference to the story of Moses in the bulrushes. Addy, a slave on the Plenty Plantation, discovers a boy floating in a basket when Mr. Plenty sends her to fish by the riverbank. But the boy, Jabe, is no defenseless babe. To thank Addy for bringing him to shore, Jabe gives her a golden pear (""This must be the fruit of heaven,"" she sighs), and then plants its seeds by the river. Setting the pattern for many extraordinary feats to come, Jabe calls out to the fish that have eluded Addy's attempts to catch them, and they virtually fly right into Addy's wagon. Within a season, Jabe has grown into a full-grown man with ""the strength of fifty"" and the seeds have sprouted into a fruit-bearing pear tree. The plantation experiences unprecedented prosperity--but slaves begin to disappear without a trace. ""Maybe Moses come in the night,"" says a slave still at the plantation, but Addy attributes the escapes to Jabe and that pear tree, with ""the North Star shining through its branches."" Nolen and Nelson give this inventively tall tale a welcome subtlety. The author draws on a variety of traditions: the equation of Moses with Harriet Tubman; the African-American folktale that gave its title to Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly; the legends of Paul Bunyan and John Henry; even the language of the Gospels. Nolen provides just enough information to enable readers to draw their own conclusions as to the identity of Big Jabe and the nature of the pear tree--and she makes readers want to ponder these questions. Nelson (Brothers of the Knight) resists the temptation of hyperbole. His finely hatched watercolor and gouache illustrations emphasize images of slave life; when he does depict Big Jabe's fantastic feats, his naturalistic style permits him to depict them with an apparent realism. In this way, Nelson supports Nolen in using superhuman elements to distill all-too-human truths. This eloquent tale neither demeans the characters nor forces readers to identify directly with the characters' suffering. Instead, author and artist empower the audience to confront an unbearable history and come away with hope. Ages 6-up. (Apr.)