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Big Picture
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

John Coltrane’s Giant Steps; written and illus. by Chris Raschka.
Jackson/Atheneum, 2002 34p
ISBN 0-689-84598-7 $17.00 6-10 yrs

Can a temporal art be captured in a two-dimensional medium? Would elementary-school-age kids remotely care? Raschka’s third literary foray into jazz, a whimsical performance of the John Coltrane title piece, answers respectively with an “Amazingly well” and a resounding “Yes.” Here he funnels the playful experimentation that marked his earlier efforts (Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, BCCB 12/92, and Mysterious Thelonius, 10/97) into a lively opus that is at once artily provocative and solidly kid-friendly.

“Good evening. And thank you for coming to our book.” With a tacit wink, Maestro Raschka invites children to take a giant step out of their traditional picture-book role of viewer/listener and into the role of audience, and he straight away whets their appetites with the promise of a “marvelous and tricky composition.” Oddly assorted players—box, raindrop, snowflake, and kitten—take the stage and do a bit of limbering up, and the silent music begins. A tempo-setting raindrop pulses across a double spread, shifting from positive to negative images in cool blues. It’s joined by “sound foundation” box, overlaying the raindrop and morphing between peach and yellow. Harmony snowflake (“taking the piano part tonight”) tumbles her lavender self into the increasingly complex translucent stratum. And here comes Coltrane’s own saxophone kitten (“the melody on top of everything”) striding across her colleagues, a pert and confident streak of inky black. Well, perhaps a bit overconfident. Even pros have their off moments, and as kitten lopes along in “BIG, BIG STEPS,” the players tangle and collapse in a humiliating heap: “People, people! What happened? . . . [R]aindrops, you were rushing on page 19. . . . Snowflake. . . . What I want to see is rich color but not muddy color. Remember. Coltrane’s music is dense but transparent.” They take it again from page 14, and this effort is flawless: “Sheets of color. Sheets of sound.”

Wherever a child is situated along the humor continuum, there’s bound to be something here to please. First, there’s the perennial allure of seeing the experts—even in improbable guise—get it wrong, and Raschka’s diagrammed analysis of the failure, with arrows and circles in fiery editorial red, is a hoot. Those who favor slapstick will, of course, glom onto the grand debacle, with box and raindrop in a discouraged slump, snowflake literally coming to pieces, and droopy-whiskered kitten flat on her back like a dead cockroach. Older members of the audience, savvy to conductors’ stereotypical perfectionism and fits of pique, will chuckle knowingly at Raschka’s exasperated kvetching.

Churning just beneath this pleasingly goofy, deceptively simple storyline, though, is a dead-on examination of what makes Trane, Trane. Lecturing his errant musicians, Raschka casts Coltrane’s performance and compositional benchmarks in child-accessible terms: “No matter how fast he’s going, he always sounds relaxed”; “But can you [box] be strong yet light?”; “He blew a fountain of notes, a shower of notes, but those notes made lines that were dynamic and strong and vivid.” It’s the pictures, though, that make the truly daring media leap from the otic to the optic shore. Watercolor is an ideal vehicle for conveying the complexity of the Coltrane sound, and translucent colors that first slosh together in awkward disarray later meld delicately into the harmony of the final take, tacitly directing novice jazz listeners to “watch” for the logical thread within the dense knot of sound. There’s a powerful, if implicit message here: jazz is no cacophonous free-for-all, but an intricate, disciplined musical form.

The real success of Raschka’s performance will, in the end, be measured by whether kids ask to hear “Giant Steps,” or better still, lots of Coltrane tunes. Fire up the AV equipment and put the Trane’s CDs on red alert, because the smart money says they will be asking.

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Big Picture Image

Cover illustration by Chris Raschka from John Coltrane’s Giant Steps ©2002. Used by permission of Jackson/Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

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This page was last updated on September 1, 2002.