review: Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Screen Shot 2019-08-01 at 7.33.08 PMtitle: Clayton Byrd Goes Underground
author: Rita Williams-Garcia
date: Amistad; 2017
main character: Clayton Byrd
death; music; forgiveness

Clayton Byrd wants to be a bluesman like Cool Papa Byrd. He wants his opportunity while playing with the Bluesmen to come in and solo for his twelve bars so bad, but Cool Papa keeps telling Clayton that he won’t be ready until he can bend his notes.

“I want my solo,” Clayton said. “I want the people to hear me play.” He winked at his grandfather. “I know I’m good.”

Cool Papa laughed. “Might be good, but you’re not ready. You need seasoning.”

“Aw, man!” Clayton balked, half joking, half whining. Seasoning’s for salt and pepper shakers.”

“Precisely, man,” his grandfather said back. “Blues gotta cook. Cooking and playing are the same thing.” (p. 10)

Clayton has no idea what that means, but he may soon find out.

Clayton is an elementary age Black male child who lives with his mother and her father, Cool Papa Byrd. While she has little affection for her father, he is Clayton’s best friend and mentor. Whenever mom works a double shift on Fridays, the two blues players, Clayton on blues harp and Cool Papa on guitar, sneak out to a gig in the park. When they come home, Cool Papa prepares a meal and then reads Clayton to sleep.

Ms. Williams-Garcia’s book is all about the blues, from her references to its stylings to the nature of the story itself. Yes, Clayton Byrd Goes Underground is a blues story. And, it’s in the skill and attitude in which she writes the book that Ms. Williams-Garcia conveys its Blackness. Where some need to mention the skin-tone of their characters to delivery racial identity, Ms. Williams-Garcia offers an aesthetic that is undeniably Black. In this aesthetic, she’s able to give complete visibility (in third person no less) to a young man who is seeking visibility. He wants his solo with the Bluesmen, he doesn’t want to have to read a book with his class that he’s already read with Cool Papa and he wants to keep his blues harp. So, he makes a plan.

In the morning, his mother said, “I’m only doing what’s best for you.”

Clayton gave her a vacant look. He drank his milk, took two bites of his toast, chewed, swallowed, and stuffed the rest in his mouth.

“Keep it up,” his mother said.

“Or what?” His mouth was full of toast.

She already had his blues harp. What else could she take? Clayton didn’t care. Clayton had a plan. (p. 68)

In the clarity of what she’s writing and for whom she’s writing, Ms. Williams-Garcia creates a universal story, something to which most anyone can relate. When Clayton goes underground, he finds himself in twelve chapters of situations that are quite recognizable as are the feelings they evoke.

Clayton knew better than to beg for his hat. He’d seen how it went at school when one kid took another kid’s stuff.  Look sharp. Be cool. Cool like when he had wanted that solo with the Bluesmen but felt it slipping away from him. It wasn’t easy, wanting something badly and playing it off like it didn’t matter. But that was all he could do. He was no match against the wiry, taller, hard faced teen.

Train Ear removed Cool Papa Byrd’s hat from his head. He eyed it, ran his finger around the brim, then looked at Clayton. He stepped to the edge of the platform, held his arm out to the track. Twirling the hat on his own finger.

Clayton’s heart leapt and sank. But his feet remained still. (p. 116-7)

It’s no wonder this book has been recognized for the Booklist Top 10 Diverse Fiction for Older and Middle Readers: 2018; ALSC Notable Children’s Books 2018, Middle; ALA-CBC Building a Home Library Booklist – 2018; CCBC Choices 2018 Choice: Fiction for Children; ILA Children’s Choices – 2018; National Book Award 2017 Shortlist; Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2017, Middle Grade; Booklist Top 10 Books for Youth, Arts; Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2017, Middle Grade; School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2017, Middle Grade and Chapter Book and the Horn Book Fanfare List 2017, Fiction.

Ms. Williams-Garcia’s previous books include Bottle Cap Boys, Gone Crazy in Alabama, P.S. Be Eleven, One Crazy Summer, Jumped, No Laughter Here and Every Time a Rainbow Dies, Like Sisters on the Homefront will be re-issued in paperback at the end of this year.