I loved Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gaither Sister trilogy, so of course I wanted to try her latest book, too.
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia. Narrated by Adam Lazarre-White. Amistad, 2017.
Young Clayton loves hanging out with grandfather, Cool Papa, staying out late to play blues with his band while his mother works late shifts as a nurse in this story that appears to be set in the 1980s. Clayton plays the “blues harp” or harmonica along with the band, and dreams of being good enough for a solo. They have to keep this secret from Clayton’s mother, though, who blames the blues for Cool Papa having been absent most of her own childhood. When Cool Papa dies unexpectedly, Clayton’s mother sets out to remove everything of Cool Papa’s from their lives, from his records to Clayton’s own blues harp. Clayton runs away find Cool Papa’s Blues Men, but instead gets caught up playing the blues harp for a slightly older gang that does aggressive hip-hop dancing in subway cars.
I love reading about music, whether or not it’s a style I’m familiar with. The descriptions of Clayton’s music and the fusion of blues and the new to him hip-hop are vivid and heartfelt. Cool Papa lives up to his name as the coolest grandpa ever, very involved in Clayton’s life. He reads to him every night and encourages him in his music without responding to Clayton’s pushing of limits. I’m verging into parenting speak here, because the parenting on the part of Clayton’s mother is textbook awful. She is very focused on Clayton’s obedience, for example, only calling him “angel” or anything else kind when he isn’t acting like himself, and frequently scolding him for disobeying or not listening while never taking the time to find out the causes of his “bad” behavior. This was just really painful for me to read as a mother. I hoped the book would get easier to read once Clayton ran away, but the behavior stays so dangerous that I was never able to relax enough to really enjoy the music, as it were. It was helped by Adam Lazarre-White’s resonant voice, which was very good at conveying both Clayton and his grandfather. Kid readers, though, may not have the same problems that I did, and the not-too-distant historical fiction with a boy hero is definitely something we need.