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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, by Rita Williams-Garcia. Harper, 2017. $21.00 ages 10 and up

"It didn't matter. People continued to fill Clayton's front yard. They saw the sign Yard Sale - All Must Go! and stopped their jogging, bike riding, and dog walking. Ms. Byrd gave them whatever they offered for Cool Papa's treasures. Sometimes she said, "Just take it." "Great stuff!" Omar exclaimed. At that moment "friend" was the last thing Clayton would have called Omar. Omar pinned one of Cool Papa's ... "

Clayton Bird learns a lot from his Cool Papa, his mother's father. Cool Papa is a 'bluesman', a music legend for his ability to make his guitars sing the blues. He and his band mates are well known in Washington Square Park, and Clayton is a fan and willing apprentice to the blues they play so soulfully. He has a blues harp, he practises endlessly and listens when Cool Papa tells him: “A bluesman ain’t a bluesman without that deep-down cry.” He won't get a solo until he earns it.

The unexpected loss of his grandfather leads to heartache and anger for Clayton. First of all, his mother, who has always played second fiddle to her father's need to share his music, wants no reminders of him left in her house. Second, Clayton has no say in what she offers for sale. In the end, he has his harp and his grandfather's porkpie hat. And a lot of hostility for his mother's refusal to hear anything he says. She wants Clayton kept 'safe' from her father's musical, wandering world. She doesn't want him to have his harmonica, or to spend any time with his father, Albert Miller. He is only allowed to see him at scheduled visits, on his mother's terms. The blues harp is hidden away, the hat as well. School and church offer no solace for the young boy.

After a time, it's all too much for Clayton. Angry and hurting, he sets off to find his grandfather's cronies, and make some music with them. It is a rash decision. The day leads him on a long trip by subway, and some scary moments along the way. When the dust clears, his mother has been called to pick him up from police custody. But, Clayton has found his voice. Now able to express himself, his grief and his anger, things begin to change.

The musical link is very strong throughout this remarkable story. I love the way Ms. Williams-Garcia shows her readers the power that it holds for Clayton and other important characters. Cool Papa wants Clayton to know that power. Readers make the connection between music genres - beatbox and blues. It takes commitment to the music itself, as well as the musician giving over to the feelings and growth it elicits.
Complex and realistic, family love, music and grief are at its heart.

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