Chris Raschka is one of our most ambitious children's book illustrators. When he's good, he's great, and he wins the Caldecott Award for best children's illustration. When he tries too hard, he's sly but opaque, clever but obscure. "Waffle," for example, plays with concept at the expense of clarity, and the result is a disappointing mish-mosh. This book is on the heady side, but musically-inclined youngsters guided by a talented teacher, parent, or other adult will enjoy's Raschka's imaginative deconstruction/reconstruction of Coltrane's magnificent jazz piece.
Raschka almost nails it with this visual and verbal description of saxophonist John Coltrane's incredible "Giant Steps," a landmark number of dizzying complexity, speed, and joy that most energetic younsters would like on its own. However, much of the appeal lies in a very intellectual exercise requiring levels of abstract thinking and reading ability beyond most of the young audience who will be attracted to the picture book format. However, teenagers, pre-adolescents with a musical bent, and adults will appreciate Raschka sensitive evaluation of Coltrane's talent. Younger kids might like the colorful (although not vividly colorful) pictures, and the pictures of the raindrops, snowflake, and cat. However, these by themselves are not that appealing, and the song's "narration" is clever but not a very interesting story. That is why the book doesn't quite work for early elementary school-age kids reading it on their own.
The most fascinating aspect of Raschka's "Giant Steps" is that he purposely draws the song all wrong! The book disappoints, and then tricks us, because Raschka knows exactly what he was doing. The cat narrator leads the shapes and colors in a visual performance of Coltrane's number, but the impression is, well, unimpressive. Even for a metaphor of Coltrane's music, the colors look blurry and the composition are unfocused.
However, at a break in the performance (on pages 24 and 25), Raschka gently tells us that the preceeding images (by Raschka) were not quite right, were not Coltrane. The "performers" (and the reader) must understand that Coltrane was strong, yes, but "strong yet light." The colors should be rich, not "muddy," because "Coltrane's music is dense but transparent." And while Coltrane did blow "a fountain of notes, a shower of notes...those notes made lines that were dynamic and strong and vivid." In a remarkable performace of his own,. Raschka redraws the musical sequence to reflect these attributes, and this time he captures the rhythms, sounds, and energetic clarity of Coltrane. It's a masterful achievement, but I don't know how many kids will appreciate it. A dazzling, albeit puzzling, work that stands, as Ellington once said, "beyond category."