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Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

If you’ve ever wanted to run away from home, you’ll sympathize with Clayton Byrd. He just wants to make music with his grandpa, Cool Papa Byrd–but his mother won’t let him. And then Cool Papa dies and Clayton has to choose: give up on music, or run away to find his grandpa’s band.

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground is a 2019-2020 Young Hoosier Book Award nominee, and is one of the Battle of the Books titles for PCSC. The latest from Newbery Award winning author Rita Williams-Garcia, Clayton Byrd is a thoughtful story about family and the price of following your dreams.

While this is a short book, and a relatively quick read, Clayton’s story is pretty intense. He feels disconnected from his parents and struggles to deal with his emotions after Cool Papa’s death. He keeps getting in trouble at school, and his mother doesn’t seem willing to listen to his explanations. However, some funny moments  between Clayton and his best friend, and the warmth of his memories of Cool Papa both lighten the intensity.

Williams-Garcia keeps the setting vague, with Clayton living near a major city which I interpreted as New York City. There’s a timeless quality to this story which made me wonder if it had originally been written as historical fiction. While it doesn’t seem to take place in our fast-paced, tech-savvy world, the emotions and struggles that Clayton experiences are still important and understandable. I appreciated that some chapters from Clayton’s mother’s point of view. This insight helps us understand the echoes from her childhood that influence her decisions in Clayton’s life.

Ultimately, Clayton must discover for himself the value of his home and family. The city is not what he expected, but it still gives him a sense of perspective. His time there helps him to process his loss as he learns about himself, and his parents, and Cool Papa.

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