Big Jabe

Big Jabe

by Jerdine Nolen, Kadir Nelson

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When a young slave named Addy goes fishing one spring day, she doesn't catch any fish. Instead, she finds a little boy in a basket floating in the river. Jabe is no ordinary boy: in a few short months, he grows to be a big, strong man with the strength of fifty. He can pick an entire field of cotton by himself in just one night and day. Why, he even has the


When a young slave named Addy goes fishing one spring day, she doesn't catch any fish. Instead, she finds a little boy in a basket floating in the river. Jabe is no ordinary boy: in a few short months, he grows to be a big, strong man with the strength of fifty. He can pick an entire field of cotton by himself in just one night and day. Why, he even has the power to turn a tired old workhorse into a young filly ready to race! When slaves begin to miraculously disappear from the Plenty Plantation, Addy knows in her heart that Jabe is the reason why.

Editorial Reviews

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
Tall-tale-hero Jabe is informed by echoes of traditional folk heroes like High John the Conquerer, John Henry, and old Toby from 'The People Could Fly.' Nelson's illustrations evoke a sense of bucolic beauty on the one hand and tall-tale merriment on the other.
Publishers Weekly
With an unmistakable reference to the story of Moses, a captive discovers a boy floating in a basket. The collaborators here "use superhuman elements to distill all-too-human truths, and empower the audience to confront an unbearable history and come away with hope," wrote PW in a boxed review. Ages 6-up. (Jan.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Children's Literature - Children's Literature
Jabe is the larger-than-life hero of this original tall tale of life on the plantation in the days of slavery. Arriving magically in a basket floating on the river, he immediately seems to cause miraculous events, while in no time at all he does the ever-harder work set to the slaves. The wicked overseer resents the way Jabe makes their lives pleasanter. But each time he tries to punish one of the slaves, that slave is magically spirited away. Jabe eventually moves on, but everywhere he goes "burdens are lifted." This picture of plantation life puts reality next to the spirit of hope and freedom that burned within. Nelson's naturalistic colored drawings describe a rural South with lush fields, healthy animals, nasty overseer and kindly slaves. Even the few scenes of mistreatment are bathed in a romantic light that softens the evil. Although the text hints at some benign magic, only a scene of fish jumping from the river actually shows this. The scenes chosen from the lengthy text provide a real sense of place and characters. 2000, HarperCollins Juvenile Books, Ages 6 to 10, $15.95. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
Children's Literature
New in paperback is Jerdine Nolen's Big Jabe. This original tall tale reads like a retelling. Young Addy, a house slave and expert fisher woman, finds a basket in the river with a small boy in it. Sighting her empty basket, he calls "Fish, fish, where is you fish?/Jump to the wagon like Miss Addy wish!" The river roils and fish jump, hop, and fly to fill Addy's wagon. So begins the miracles of Jabe, who grows to a man in three months, can "weed a whole field of soybeans before sunup, hoe the back forty by midday, and mend ten miles of fence by sunset." And when the overseer torments slaves, they disappear without a trace. Nolen's readable writing springs to life with oral tradition conventions of strong similes, dialect delivered in conversations, easy-to-visualize scenes, overstatements, and lessons buried discerningly in the story. 2003, HarperCollins, Ages 5 up.
—Susie Wilde
School Library Journal
Gr 2-5-This original tall tale tells of an unusual African American who frees the slaves on Plenty Plantation. The story is framed by a contemporary boy hearing about the past from Momma Mary. She tells of the young slave, Addy, who finds a boy in a basket while she is fishing. The child can do miraculous things, like call the fish out of the water when they're not biting, or harvest the cotton fields in a night and a day when he grows older. Jabe makes sure that the slaves get their fair share of everything, too, but the overseer doesn't appreciate him, and takes out his frustrations on the other slaves. When they mysteriously disappear in the night, only Addy seems to know that Jabe is responsible, and, when she is put in chains and about to be sold, he rescues her, too. Nolen's writing draws readers into the narrative and presents the magical aspects matter-of-factly. The author uses traditional folklore motifs to good effect in creating this larger-than-life hero. Nelson's watercolor-and-gouache paintings bring the characters fully to life and provide a realistic and historically accurate setting for the fantastic events. The illustrations, particularly the cover of Jabe striding tall above the trees and the scenes around the plantation, highlight the fantasy even as they make the story real.-Ellen A. Greever, University of New Orleans, LA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Kirkus Reviews
Nolen (In My Momma's Kitchen, 1999) rears up a new talltale hero, with the strength of 50 and a hidden agenda. The lad, who floats down the river and into the arms of Simon Plenty's house slave, Addy, shows early signs of unusual ability, calling fish out of the water until Addy's wagon is piled high. By that June, young Jabe is a fullgrown man, capable of mending ten miles of fence between midday and sundown. Like the pear tree he plants, which grows to full size in one season "with the North Star shining through its branches," all of the crops on the plantation come in with unprecedented abundance that year. Only the overseer is displeased—even more so when each slave who feels his displeasure disappears with his family in the wake of a strange storm that wipes out any sign of a trail. Addy whispers that Jabe is "taking them to the pear tree," which is to say pointing them North to freedom. Nelson (Brothers of the Knight, not reviewed) takes Jabe from a rawboned child with an engaging grin to brawny adulthood, placing him into historical scenes that rival Trina Schart Hyman's for fine detail and strongly drawn, expressive figures. In the end, Jabe leaves as suddenly as he came, and is last seen striding away, towering over the trees. Like Virginia Hamilton's Drylongso (1999) and unlike John Henry, Big Jabe seems not just larger than life, but a force of nature, subtle, secret, untouchable—and that undercurrent of mystery gives his story a mythic power. (Picture book. 710)

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
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Product dimensions:
9.25(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.00(d)
Age Range:
4 - 8 Years

Meet the Author

Jerdine Nolen is the author of a diverse range of picture books, from the thoughtful In My Momma's Kitchen to the wildly imaginative Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm, which was made into a TV movie. Jerdine Nolen lives with her children in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Kadir Nelson won the 2012 Coretta Scott King Author Award and Illustrator Honor for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. He received Caldecott Honors for Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, for which he also garnered a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and won an NAACP Image Award. Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. Nelson's authorial debut, We Are the Ship, was a New York Times bestseller, a Coretta Scott King Author Award winner, and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book. He is also the author and illustrator of the acclaimed Baby Bear.

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