Clayton Byrd Goes Underground


This is an amazingly insightful story about a child whose mother and father are so caught up in their own story and their own emotions that they completely miss what is going on with their son.  What happens when we miss seeing a child?  Here's a story that gives us a look at what their future could be... a Ghost of Christmas Past, Ghost of Christmas Future scenario.....brilliant and much-needed.

A few ghost notes...then some electric blues sparks... the crowd waits. Clayton Byrd is watching his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and listening for the sign. It comes and Clayton knows his part. The other Bluesmen pick up their bass, turn to their keyboard, or keep the beat on the "tight" on the percussion. Clayton lifts his blues harp to his lips and blows "as much life as he could between the musical spaces the Bluesmen left open for him."

Cool Papa Byrd has given his grandson a space all his own. That blues harp is a part of Clayton as much as his left arm and the time he spends growing up on his grandfather's watchful eye is sent from the angels. It's Cool Papa who will make the spaghetti and fishsticks when they get home. It's Cool Papa who will read the bedtime story even though Clayton's mother says he's too old to be read to.

Clayton is being molded under Cool Papa's careful love. Cool Papa Byrd sees Clayton...gets him from the inside out. He is paying attention. Clayton's parents live apart and his mother works long hours at the hospital so it is a lucky thing that her father, Cool Papa, is around to care for Clayton. That care is something Clayton's mother longed for as a child but her father chose to go to sea and then to hit the road to play the blues.

This is a story about the empty places people hold onto. Those places wait inside of us and they are sad or angry or lonely. They can be all kinds of things but they tend to make our today a sorry version of what it could be. They keep the hurting child alive instead of letting us move into this time where we can feel love and joy and wonder.

Clayton falls asleep to the sound of Cool Papa's voice. When he wakes the next morning, Cool Papa is sitting in the chair, but he's gone. At that moment he needs someone to listen and understand and help him navigate the pain and the empty spaces.

Caught in her resentments from the past, Clayton's mother holds a yard sale and gets rid of everything Cool Papa owned..even his record albums.  Clayton grabs Cool Papa's navy blue cap and saves it for himself.  Mom doesn't stop there.  She tells Clayton he can never play the blues harp again.

This is exquisitely told. The frustrations, the pain, the potential choices that appear as Clayton responds to the incredibly lonely place where he is for now are realistic and vividly told. Tension and the first tinges of danger creep in his direction.

This is a story about adults who are so caught up in their own pain that they are blinded to the feelings, perceptions and experiences of their children. They miss what their children need most from them. They forget to stand in someone else's shoes.


Our young folks need us to listen to this and to pay attention to it and to learn from it. That's how their futures change and that's how we all grow and move to a better place for ourselves and our world.

This story will resonate with children who hold their own pain and will connect with children who are able to imagine the feeling of the losses and understand how important it is to be heard and understood and to have your feelings valued.

Rich. Sensitive. Vibrating with the deepest truths of the human experience from a child's point of view. Clayton Byrd is a gift.

166 pages Ages 8-12 978-0062215918

Keyword: multigenerational

Recommended by: Barb Langridge,

Read alike: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

******* “When no one steps on my dreams there'll be days like this

When people understand what I mean there'll be days like this

When you ring out the changes of how everything is

Well my mama told me there'll be days like this ”

-- Van Morrison (1995)

“It was seven forty-five and the plan was in action. Clayton avoided the main streets and began the three-quarter-mile hike to his house. His mother should have been on her way to work, creeping along on the expressway in her car.

Still, Clayton took a deep, careful breath when he turned the corner onto his block. He saw what he expected to see. An empty driveway. He exhaled, ran to the side door, let himself in with his key, and ran up the stairs. So far, so good.

He opened his mother’s bedroom door carefully, as if she might still be there. But he was alone. And now, to find his blues harp.

He opened drawer after drawer of her highboy. Six drawers of silky things. Underthings that belonged to his mother. It was when he pulled open the highest drawer that he knew. He should have known to begin with! The highest drawer was a hiding drawer to keep something away from a kid. But though Clayton was a kid, he was tall enough to get what he needed from the top drawer without having to stand on anything, He was sure he’d be able to look his mother straight in the eye in another year. After all, his mother wasn’t growing any taller, but he could feel himself inching up.

His hand found the candy-bar-shaped metal instantly. He wiped it clean of the silky, girly things it had been smothered by, and then sank it in his mouth to slick it up. Then he blew into all the holes, sliding upward, and drew in the air to slide back down.

He went inside his room, opened the closet, and grabbed the porkpie hat. He took the rest of his money--seventeen dollars in bills--folded them, and zipped up the cash in his book bag. He ran down the stairs, threw a peanut butter cracker snack into the nearly empty book bag, tucked his MetroCard in his pants pocket, stuffed his silver blues harp in his jacket pocket, and put the porkpie hat on his head.

He was about to run out the back door, but he stopped. Turned. Walked to the dining room table. Picked up the glass saltshaker. The angel with the glued-on wing. He put it on the floor, raised his right foot, and smashed it.

Then he left.”

Clayton Byrd is miserable. His blues-playing guitarist grandfather has died. He loved his grandfather who taught him to play a blues harp and took him along to jam with his blues band.

Clayton Byrd’s mother, the daughter of his beloved grandfather, still resents her father for having been off on tour through much of her childhood. She thoughtlessly sells off all of her dead father’s belongings in a yard sale, including the guitars that Clayton thought would be his. All he can salvage from the sale is his grandfather’s porkpie hat.

On top of all this, Clayton’s teacher is requiring the class to read the very same book that Clayton’s grandfather would read him to get Clayton to fall asleep. Clayton can’t read it without thinking about his grandfather’s voice and, embarrassingly, falling asleep in class. This leads to his mother confiscating his blues harp.

Clayton is so miserable that he decides to run away and go hang out with his grandfather’s blues musician friends. His adventure lasts just one harrowing day before he’s caught up in the arrest of a gang of teens on the subway. Fortunately, Chayton’s father, who we hadn’t previously met, steps up to help Clayton sort out his feelings about his mother.

Some people are fortunate enough to forgive and be forgiven for the terrible manner in which we humans sometimes treat one another. So often, this bad behavior is rooted in the way in which parents treat their offspring. CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND leaves us hopeful that Clayton will be able to move toward a better, more communicative relationship with both of his parents. It may inspire readers to make peace with their own.

Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

See more of his recommendations: Richie's Picks

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