Thursday, March 8, 2018

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

Nothing makes Clayton Bryd happier than sneaking off to Washington Square Park and playing his blues harp (a/k/a harmonica) with his beloved grandfather Cool Papa Byrd and his friends the Bluesmen, except possibly playing a twelve-bar solo. But all Cool Papa keeps telling his not yet. Then, the unthinkable happens and Cool Papa is gone from Clayton's life.

No sooner is Cool Papa's funeral over than his daughter, Juanita, Clayton's mom, decides to sell all his belongings - records, guitars, clothing, everything. All Clayton manages to salvage is Cool Papa's porkpie hat. Sad and angry, Clayton just doesn't understand why his mom is so bitter towards her father.

To make matters worse, Cool Papa always read to Clayton at bedtime, and no sooner does he return to school, when the teacher announces a new book for the class to read together - the very same book Cool Papa read to help Clayton fall asleep, the one he was reading when he passed away. When Clayton tells the teacher he has already read the book, could he please read another, she insists he read what the class is reading. But Clayton associates that book,  The Four Corners of the World with going to sleep and that's just what happens everything time the class begins reading it.

After finally getting suspended for constantly falling asleep when he should be reading, Clayton's mother takes his precious blues harp away. Angry and hurt, and still missing his grandfather, Clayton hatches a plan. The next day, instead of going to school, Clayton finds his blues harp, his grandfather's porkpie hat, and his money - all $17.00 of it - and heads to Washington Square Park to find and join the Bluesman. And that is just the beginning of Clayton's coming of age journey, thanks to the ragtag group of buskers he meets on the subway, and who are just trying to make some money performing hip hop underground.

There is so much going on in Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, I almost don't know where to begin. On the one hand, there is Clayton's story, the loss of the most stable person in his life, followed by  his anger and frustration at his mother and teacher for not understanding how profoundly his grandfather's death has impacted his young life. Then, there is his desire to recapture what he had with his grandfather by finding and joining the Bluesmen. But there is also Clayton's mother and her anger and frustration at her father for being gone most of her childhood, coupled with feelings of jealousy as she watches Clayton get the love and attention she had once wished to have, while she is now forced to work long shifts at the hospital to make ends meet.

Cool Papa had always said that "a bluesman ain't a bluesman without that deep-down cry" (pg 6) and that is just what Clayton's underground education helps him understand. Now, I've been riding the NYC subways my whole life and even I had a few breath-holding moments reading Clayton's experiences with those hip hop buskers he meets. And yet, kudos to Williams-Garcia for letting Clayton make wrong decisions and have those scary experiences.

The blues and hip hop, both African American musical and cultural genres. are the perfect musical accompaniment for Clayton Orpheus-like journey to the depth of the underworld to find a way to release his "deep-down cry." To his credit, it is his father who ultimately hears Clayton's cry, the father whose access to Clayton has always been limited by the angry Juanita but whose desire to be part of his son's life never flagged.

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground is an achingly realistic novel, and a brilliant coming of age tale for today young readers.

You can find a detailed, useful downloadable Discussion Guide for this book HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss Plus

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