Review by Annie Cronin Romano
In CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND, Clayton is devoted to two things: his grandfather and his blues harp (no, it’s not a harmonica!). All Clayton hopes for is a solo with the Bluesmen, the group his grandfather and Clayton perform with in Washington Square Park. So when Clayton’s grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, dies unexpectedly, the soulful melancholy of the blues songs he played becomes all too real. Devastated by his mother’s insistence to rid their lives of all things that remind her of Cool Papa, Clayton takes off in search of the Bluesmen, certain that when he finds them, they’ll take him under their wing and mentor him musically as his grandfather did. And he’ll finally get that solo he’s wanted to play so badly. But life on the run has other plans for Clayton, and his harrowing adventure opens up problems Clayton never dreamed he'd encounter. Throughout the story, Rita Williams-Garcia tenderly and skillfully navigates the emotions Clayton experiences as he struggles with the sudden loss of his grandfather and the resentment he feels towards his mother, who wants to bury Clayton’s love of the blues right along with Cool Papa.
CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND (Amistad, 2017) is a middle grade novel for children ages 8-12. This beautifully written story reads like a blues score with language that captures the very spirit of the music it features.
Rita Williams-Garcia explores the complexity of losing a loved one from the child’s perspective while also depicting the contrasting experiences of the parent. Written in third person, CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND does not shy away from the difficult topic of death; it seamlessly weaves the sadness of loss with the joy of how a person’s impact can keep shining even after he's gone. The characterization is strong, and the wailing tones of a blues melody are captured in every line, making it a laudable example of using linguistic style to elicit the tone of a story.
Rita Williams-Garcia is the bestselling author of many award-winning books, including One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven. For more information on her work, visit her website at https://rita-williamsgarcia.squarespace.com/.
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