Monday, April 18, 2011

Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow: Gary Golio

I'm excited to team up with fellow poet and former classmate, Kelley Beeson this month. Kelley works for the Allegheny County Library Association, and she's invited me to post a monthly book review at the ACLA Youth Services blog. So once a month, I'll be posting both at ACLA and at Please Come Flying, switching back and forth between middle grade and picture book reviews. What fun!

What better way to kick off a new partnership than with some good old fashioned rock 'n roll? I teach a series of songwriting workshops for the K-5 set, and I'm always looking for good picture books about music and musicians to use during our "Seal Pup" listening time. But a book about Jimi Hendrix? Isn't that a little intense? Of course the man was a creative genius, but how do you write truthfully about someone who suffered so intensely from drug abuse and addiction and present it in a way that is suitable for kindergartners?

In Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, Golio strikes a good balance. The text focuses on Jimi's life as a child. We see how Jimi pays attention to the sounds all around him, experiments with instruments, and finds ways to play the rainbow of sounds that exist in his head.

In this way, the book reminds me quite a bit of Before John Was a Jazz Giant, a picture book biography of John Coltrane. Both authors do a terrific job of showing how a musician can find inspiration in the world around them. In Before John Was a Jazz Giant, John gathers inspiration from "the steam engines whistling past, Cousin Mary giggling at jitterbuggers, and Bojangles tap-dancing in the picture show."

In Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow:
"With every sound, a color glowed in Jimi's mind.
Blue was the whoosh of cool water, splashing over rocks.
Orange and red, the crackling of a campfire.
Green, the rustle of a thousand leaves."
In both books, the musicians learn to bring the essence of those childhood sounds into the genius of their compositions. Golio writes:
"Like no one before him, Jimmy Hendrix taught his guitar to sing, scream, laugh, and cry. He learned to use it as an artist uses paint, creating new worlds with the colors of sounds."
What a beautiful description of the creative process!

Golio leaves Jimi's adult sadness for the end papers where it can be absorbed or not at will. He briefly and tastefully describes the tragedy of Jimi Hendrix's death and includes some age-appropriate Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services resources for further reading "in the spirit of recognizing that addiction is a treatable disease, and that deaths like Jimi's can be prevented." I appreciate that he does not gloss over the issue, nor does he hit us over the head with it.

I will admit that while Javaka Steptoe's colorful paint-on-plywood collages are interesting and full of texture and detail, I'm not immediately drawn to the illustrations. But I will definitely be using this book in my songwriting workshops. It's a keeper.

And because I can't resist a video link, here's Jimi Hendrix himself playing Voodoo Child live in 1969.

Also posted at ACLA Youth Services Blog.

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