Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix by Gary Golio, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe

2010. New York, NY: Clarion Books, 32 pages

Genre: Informational picture book

Ages: Upper Elementary through high school

Features: Distinctive art, ”More” About Jimi Hendrix, Author’s and illustrator’s note, Sources and resources.


In 1969, for my thirteenth birthday, I received four of the coolest record albums ever. I could tell how cool they were (and how cool they made me) because my mother didn’t approve of any of them. These albums by Steppenwolf (Steppenwolf), The Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour), Iron Butterfly (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida), and Jimi Hendrix (Are You Experienced?) were my big step over the line of Top 40 AM radio and the music of my parents. These albums really began my record collection and shaped my interest in music. Years later (I’m feeling so old right now), when my son was maybe ten, he wanted to hear some of my “old” music. He had a classic rock compilation CD with one Jimi Hendrix tune, and he wanted to hear more. It was really just an introduction to the music of Jimi Hendrix, but we played some songs off a couple records, and I felt cool again, passing the torch of coolness to my son (who would think it very un-cool to use the phrase “torch of coolness”). There’s a quote from Jimi included near the end of Gary Golio’s Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, “When I die, just keep playing the records.” I realized it wasn’t coolness I was passing on to my son but the creative energy of an amazing musician. And that, I believe is the aim of this beautiful book.

Gary Golio’s book is not a straightforward birth to death biography, and it is not aimed solely at a teenage audience, those of an age most likely to “discover” Jimi Hendrix’s music. The author focuses on Jimi’s early life to acquaint younger readers with both the musician and the source of his musical and creative vision. (The details of Jimi’s substance abuse and early death are not ignored but offered to readers in an author’s note and suggestions—websites, books, etc.—for further reading and exploration.) Since there is not a CD accompanying the book, you might wonder how readers will get a sense of the sound and music that Jimi Hendrix is famous for. This is accomplished through the marriage of lyrical text, art, and page design. Text—in traditional straight line sentences, formal paragraphs, and lines that curve and flow like musical notes—overlays the amazing full-page art of illustrator Javaka Steptoe. The harmony of words and illustrations “sing” the story of Jimi Hendrix to life, page after page.

Here are some ideas to help you put this book to work for you and your students in your writing classroom.

In the Classroom

1. Background. Clearly, the purpose of a biography is to teach readers about the life of its subject, but it’s still important to check with students for any prior knowledge. Has anyone heard of Jimi Hendrix? Who has heard his music? Who plays a musical instrument? How did they learn? Who are some of their favorite musicians—not just singers? Who listens to music at home? in the car? with their parents? (Who has a dad as cool as me?)

2. Reading. As always, read the book prior to sharing it with students so there won’t be any surprises and to familiarize yourself with all the book has to offer. Pay close attention to all the sensory details and figurative language used by the author, and their connections to the art and layout of each page. I suggest using sentence strips or chart paper to copy one or two of your favorite details or similes as models for students to help them find other examples. Be ready to ask students what they notice about the art and the layout of each page. (If you are using the Write Trait Classroom Kits© Grades 1-8, your students will be familiar with this kind of conversation—they might even initiate it—from their efforts in Conventions & Presentation lessons.) Don’t miss the opportunity to share the art on each page—a document camera is a great tool for this, as is simply holding the book up for your students (“I can’t see!”). If you are fortunate enough to have a music and/or art teacher in your school, this would be a great book to share with those teachers, as well. Some of the instructional opportunities that follow would fit easily in one of those classrooms or as part of your efforts to team up and “write across the curriculum.”

3. Detail/Word Choice—Poetry. This book is about a musician, so sound details and descriptions abound. On page 7, the author writes, “The sounds of life were calling out.” Go through the book a second time to help students find examples of the  “sounds of life” that were part of Jimi’s life. Make a list of these sounds. Refer students to the chart/sentence strips you created earlier.  Look for examples that use a simile to clarify the reference for readers. Chart these separately and discuss why the author chose to use figurative language to extend the details.  This would be a great time to ask students about the sounds of their lives, at home and at school. Sounds are great memory triggers—what sounds make them happy? feel hungry? feel safe? (I had a student write a poem about sounds—how sounds from the kitchen or of her dad brushing his teeth made her feel safe and secure.) On page 13, the author wonders, “Could someone paint pictures with sound?” Students could turn this around to try to use words to paint a sound picture or choose colors, like Jimi, to describe/identify a sound (pages 10-11). You and your students could even take a sound “field trip” by walking around your school—inside and out—with paper and pencil to record thoughts/feelings/descriptions of what they hear. Poetry would be a great outlet for their thinking—the sounds of the playground, the cafeteria, the office, kindergarten, etc. Jimi grew up in Seattle, Washington, in an urban setting. Student from a more suburban or rural community could contrast their “sounds” with those from Jimi’s city and neighborhood.

4. Word Choice/Voice. The author uses such active verbs, it would be a shame not to shine the spotlight on them and even play around with some to help students strengthen their understanding of the connection between word choice and voice. Here are a few of the verbs from the very first page—ripped, rocked, jumped, tumbling, plinking, rippled, etc. Students might have fun substituting these with less descriptive, more repetitive, watered down replacements—went, moved, falling, etc. Students can discuss/reflect on what happens to the voice of the writer and the reader’s involvement in the story, when verbs, in particular, aren’t as strong as they need to be.

5. Organization. Take time to discuss the organization of Golio’s book. How does the writer begin? How does he end? Notice the extra sections following the story of Jimi Hendrix’s early life—More About Jimi Hendrix page 28, Author’s Note on page 30, Illustrator’s Note on page 31, and Sources and Resources on the final page, which includes references to websites, books, and a selected discography of CDs, videos, and DVDs. (Some of these references will be more appropriate for older students.)

6. Writing/Further Research–Biography. Invite students to research and write an introductory biography of  one of the other musicians mentioned in the book—B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Howlin’ Wolf. Like this book, students could focus on their musician’s early life or just the key events that shaped the music that made them famous. Part of their research would involve listening, which might require some help from you, their music teacher, and school or local library.

7. Art Connection/Further Research. As was suggested above, be sure to read the Illustrator’s Note on page 31. Not only does Javaka Steptoe discuss the process of creating the art for this book, he also offers excellent advice to both artists and writers about “researching” your subject. As we always emphasize in workshops, readers will know—it’s part of what helps to create voice—when writers are “experts” on their topics. Steptoe tells readers that “…you can’t just pick up a book…” and expect to know everything about your topic. Writers and artists have to dig deeper. On another note, as I read the book, I couldn’t help being reminded of the illustrations of Ezra Jack Keats, the award winning author/illustrator of such classics as The Snowy Day, Pet Show, and Whistle for Willie, to name only a few. I’m sure your school or local library has some of Mr. Keats’ books, and your students might be interested in discussing what they notice about the two artists. For more about Javaka Steptoe, visit

Musical Note…

In case you thought I wasn’t going to mention it, listening to some Jimi Hendrix music is, of course, a great idea but only if you are comfortable with it. Even if you are not a fan, hearing Jimi play the guitar would complete the picture for your students, and I guarantee it would get them talking, and hopefully, writing.

Note . . .

Gary Golio, has also written a book about Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and coming in the fall of 2012, a biography of legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Visit him at

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Yes, Down the Rabbit Hole Part II is coming (once I climb back out). As always, we’ll help you make connections to narrative, poetry, and informational writing and argument, via the Common Core StandardsThank you for visiting. Come often–and bring friends. And please remember, for the BEST professional development related to six-trait writing, process, and writing workshop, contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.