Clayton Byrd idolizes his grandfather, Cool Papa, a legendary blues guitarist. Clayton’s instrument is the blues harp, or harmonica, and he yearns to finally get a solo with the Bluesmen, Cool Papa’s band. But Cool Papa tells him, “a bluesman aint’s a bluesman without that deep-down cry.”
The unthinkable happens and Cool Papa dies suddenly. Clayton is devastated. His mother is grieving too but in a different way. She’s always hated Cool Papa’s music because it took him on the road for months at a time away from her. With Cool Papa gone for good, she rids the house of anything that reminds her of his music. Clayton can’t stand seeing Cool Papa’s guitars being sold at a yard sale. He runs away to find the Bluesmen and go on the road with them.
A little boy with a few dollars in one pocket and his blues harp in the other is no match for New York. Clayton soon realizes that he’s in trouble and wants to go home even though he knows he’ll be in more trouble there.
With rhythm and soul, Rita Williams-Garcia pulls the blues out of young Clayton. Even as my heart was breaking for him, I was cheering for him to find his song and earn his solo. It’s beautifully written and it’s also a wonderful testimony to an original African-American musical art form.
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground is on the long list for the 2017 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. I highly recommend it to everyone, but especially for children who love music or those that have recently lost an important person in their lives.
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