Monday, October 15, 2012

Book #289: Before John was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carole Boston Weatherford, Illustrated by Sean Qualls

Image from
This picture book biography examines and celebrates the influences of John Coltrane before he was a jazz giant. As a boy, John hears music everywhere. There’s music in the sound of his grandma cooking, in the steam engines whistling, the hymns at church, and the birds singing sunrise. And John takes all the sounds in the world around him and he puts them in his saxophone. “Before John was a jazz giant, he was all ears.”

This book, which was named a Coretta Scott King honor book for illustration, uses the repetitive refrain, “Before John was a jazz giant,” to begin each page of text. What follows are individual moments that weave themselves in a musical tapestry of young John’s life. The acrylic, collage, and pencil illustrations use muted colors to create a world as sophisticated and textured as Coltrane’s music. Qualls’ work is reminiscent of Kandinsky and utilizes many silhouettes and geometric shapes. Circles in a variety of colors and sizes are used to represent sound and music in the illustrations. Like the text, the illustrations overlap and layer colors, shapes, people, and objects to create a visual representation of John’s musical influences. The text does not include many facts about John’s life; however an author’s note at the back of the book provides a short biographical overview. Also included are lists of recommended musical recordings and further readings on Coltrane’s life.

Pair this book with Jazz on a Saturday Night, This Jazz Man, or Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum for a storytime that celebrates jazz music.

This is also a great addition to a storytime about hearing and sound. Try pairing it with books like Jazzmatazz or The Little Little Girl with the Big Voice. This is a good time to discuss loud and soft or teach phonological awareness by clapping out the syllables in the words of the book or in a child’s name. Check out the activity guide by MacMillian for more sound and hearing activity suggestions.

Introduce kids to Coltrane’s music by first playing a little bit of his famous cover of Roger and Hammerstein’s, My Favorite Things. Then play a recording or watch a video of the song from the movie version of Sound of Music (any excuse to listen to Julie Andrews is ok by me!). If you have time, teach the kids the song. Finally, go back and play Coltrane’s version once again. Can the kids identify all the instruments playing in the song? How does the music make you feel? Notice how Coltrane takes the melody and plays with it. Encourage kids to dance, sing along, or even draw pictures while the music is playing.

Listen to this interview with Qualls about how he created the illustrations for this book. He even reads a page of the text.

If you like the illustrations in this book, check out, Dizzy, a picture book biography about Dizzy Gillespie also illustrated by Qualls. 



  1. Hi Amy, would be great if I could get your blog posts via email. Is that possible to set up at all?

    1. I'm so glad you asked me this! I learned something new today! I've nver tried it before, but I think I've figured out how. Email me the address you'd like me to use and I'll set it up.