Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Book review by
Terreece Clarke, Common Sense Media
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground Book Poster Image
The blues and forgiveness fuel emotional family grief tale.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers are exposed to the names of jazz and blues greats, some musical terms, the New York subway system, and landmarks like Washington Square Park. 

Positive Messages

It's important to discuss your feelings. Ask for help when you need it. It's important to practice forgiveness.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Clayton's grandfather is not such a great influence when he sneaks him out of the house, but the lessons he teaches Clayton counteract much of the harmless naughtiness.

Violence & Scariness

Street toughs threaten to beat up people but don't follow through. One boy steals another's money and hat.


Some mild teasing about a boy who repeatedly falls asleep in class.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, by Newbery Honor and three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner Rita Williams-Garcia (One Crazy SummerP.S. Be Eleven), is about a New York tween boy coping with the death of his grandfather. It also deals with estranged parents and other family relationships. There are instances of skipping school, running away, and displays of grief and high emotion. Parents should be prepared to talk about the grief process and how to process anger in positive ways.

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What's the story?

CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND follows Clayton as he works to become a big-time bluesman like his grandpa, Cool Papa Clayton. It was great fun sneaking out to play jazz in the park with his grandfather when his mom worked a double shift. When Clayton finds himself truly solo after the death of his grandpa, he struggles with the overwhelming loss and his mother's indifference to his pain. He doesn't know how to release the pain he's feeling. Clayton takes to the streets with few plans other than to meet up with the bluesmen his grandpa played with, but even if he does find them, has he felt the blues enough to be ready for his solo?

Is it any good?

Strong, lyrical prose combines with an emotionally smart narrative to make this short novel soar from its first few words on the page. Author Rita Williams-Garcia quickly and solidly connects readers to the characters in Clayton Byrd Goes Underground and eloquently shows the struggles of a boy becoming a man, a family dealing with unresolved issues, and the helplessness that can overcome you when grief strikes. How do you express what you feel when there's so much going on inside? What do you do with those feelings that hurt deep where only the blues can find them?

Williams-Garcia takes us on Clayton's journey to answer those questions while effortlessly connecting readers to a music genre that is often lost on young people: the blues. The symbiotic and rooted relationship between hip-hop and the blues is also explored. Overall, readers are treated to a full-bodied, layered, rich, and emotionally satisfying story in a few short pages.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how in Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, Clayton had an unrealistic idea of what life would be like on his own. Have you ever thought about running away? What/who would you miss? What would be harder on your own?

  • Families can also talk about the grief process. How did Clayton and his mother show their grief? How did that make their relationship worse? What changed? Have you ever had someone close to you die? How did you deal with your feelings?

  • Families can also talk about finding an outlet for emotion. How does playing music help Clayton deal with and express his feelings?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love family tales and stories of grief

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