Before John Was a Giant, centers on the childhood of jazz legend John Coltrane, and the sounds that inspired and shaped him as a musician.
The story begins in John's kitchen at home where the sounds of the pots and pans of where his grandmother cooks catches his ear, as well as the ukulele his father played. Young John also would pay attention to the steam engine that passed through his neighborhood, and the music coming from the local movie theatre. He paid close attention to the poetic sounds of his grandfather's sermons in church, as well as the choir.
At age 12, John was invited to join a community band by the scout leader who was also the pastor at his church. In the band, he played clarinet and marched in community parades. John would continue to be influenced by the sounds around him, including the birds chirping around him, and eventually, the sound of big bands and jazz he heard on the radio which inspired him to join the school band and learn the saxophone.
Before John was a Giant is a great book for encouraging children to be creative by paying attention to their surroundings. The actual story however does not tell a lot about how John came to be a jazz legend; that information is in saved for the Author's Note at the back of the book. Much of that information would have been great for the story itself, and would have served as an opportunity to discuss with children issues beyond Coltrane's childhood. For example, John poured himself into his music after his father died, a tidbit of information that would serve as an example to children about how to deal with the difficulties in life by turning to a hobby.
The beautiful illustrations of Sean Qualls however, and the poetic prose of writer Carole Boston Weatherford make up for this exclusion in the story. I recommend this book to parents and others who seek a book for children who have a love of music and want to learn about the legends who many times are forgotten in today's world of music.