Clayton Byrd Goes Underground
Clayton feels most alive when he’s with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the band of Bluesmen—he can’t wait to join them, just as soon as he has a blues song of his own. But then the unthinkable happens. Cool Papa Byrd dies, and Clayton’s mother forbids Clayton from playing the blues. And Clayton knows that’s no way to live.
Armed with his grandfather’s brown porkpie hat and his harmonica, he runs away from home in search of the Bluesmen, hoping he can join them on the road. But on the journey that takes him through the New York City subways and to Washington Square Park, Clayton learns some things that surprise him.
This contemporary Middle Grade book is told almost entirely from the third-person past-tense perspective of Clayton Byrd, a young boy who lives in New York City with his willfully single mother and his beloved “Cool Papa.” (Clayton’s father, Mr. Miller, is as present in Clayton’s life as his mother will allow… more on this later.) Clayton plays the “Blues Harp” (a.k.a Harmonica) for his grandfather’s band, The Bluesmen. Despite his pre-teen status, Clayton is passionate about music—longing to be just like his Cool Papa.
Cool Papa is a devoted, nurturing grandparent the likes of which most readers (myself included) could only wish for. He not only cares for Clayton, he mentors and guides him—bestowing musical training, life lessons, and bedtime stories in abundance. So when Cool Papa passes away in his sleep and Clayton is the one to find him, the boy’s loss is heart-wrenchingly palpable. And knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it any easier on readers.
Adding insult to injury, Clayton’s mother is in an almost inexplicable hurry to erase all evidence of her father. The day after the funeral, she holds a yard sale and more or less gives away all of Cool Papa’s belongings—including his guitars—and everything meant for Clayton. All he is able to save is his blues harp and his grandfather’s porkpie hat. Ms. Byrd’s ruthlessness, combined with her forbidding of the blues and insistence on blaming all of Clayton’s undesirable behaviors on her late father, eventually pushes him beyond what he can bear.