Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Clayton Byrd's "lungs and soul were ready to pour out his own story through the ten square holes of his blues harp" (harmonica). All he wants is to play the blues with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd. Although Cool Papa lets him play gigs with his band, the Bluesmen, in Manhattan's Washington Square Park, he won't let him take a solo. Cool Papa says, "When you can bend that note proper, I'll wave you in... a bluesman ain't a bluesman without that deep-down cry."

But before Clayton has a chance to prove himself, trouble finds him, as the song goes. Cool Papa falls asleep reading to Clayton one night, and never wakes up. After a lifetime of resentment over her musician father's long absences, Cool Papa's daughter--Clayton's mother--promptly gives away all his things: the records, the guitars and even Cool Papa's trademark porkpie hat (before Clayton yanks it back). Heartbroken and fed up, Clayton goes underground, skipping school to hop the downtown train in hopes of joining up with the Bluesmen. Trouble keeps finding him, though, in the form of beatboxing young subway hustlers.

Rita Williams-Garcia, author of the Newbery Honor Book One Crazy Summer and their sequels, Gone Crazy in Alabama and P.S. Be Eleven, is masterful in her use of music to tell the story of one boy's coming of age. Clayton is so squarely on the cusp of adolescence; the downbeat of his grief falls in with the sharp percussion of his rage against his mother to produce "that round-the-corner, back-to-tell-the-tale blues bend" the Bluesmen talk about. Readers will willingly accompany Clayton and his family in this aching blues riff. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

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