Music to the Mind and Salve to the Soul
Grief and complicated family relationships are treated with impeccable prose construction, musical sentences, and deep compassion by Rita Williams-Garcia. It is a love song to the Blues and a tribute to life’s “blues” as experienced by a young child so’s to become a wiser, deeper soul. Williams-Garcia also offers a forensic examination of the failed relationship between a child and her father and its lingering effects. Yes, this story is as much about Clayton’s grieving over Cool Papa’s passing as his mother’s (Ms Byrd/Juanita) coming to terms with her long-held anger toward her absent father.
It is satisfying to read word strings like “When rhythm and slow-burning funk cooked into the blues,” “The room…made its own hollow quiet,” and “His belly was…so empty he could howl.”
Williams-Garcia chose to tell Clayton’s story from a 3rd person omniscient viewpoint which allows readers glimpses of the choices, actions, and emotions of other characters, especially Clayton’s parents’. This helps rounding out the big picture, especially the relationship between Juanita and Mr. Miller. The underground journey, with none of the results hoped for and all of the unplanned consequences is not a mere plot device: in those few hours (75 pages), Clayton observes the exterior world and examines his own internal desires, and comes to understand of what truly matters. This finally allows him to clearly express himself to his mother and the entire journey serves as a turning point for the future of Clayton and his parents.
I especially appreciate the ending where we have a glimpse of Juanita’s (Ms Byrd, Clayton’s mama) effort to make room in her heart for Mr. Miller (Clayton’s caring father) and for Clayton’s needs and wishes. With no severe confrontation and no fanfare, the gentle ending feels true.
Given all the the stellar elements, it is not surprising that Clayton Byrd Goes Underground has received five nominations from Heavy Medal readers and is one of the five National Book Award finalists — winner will be announced tomorrow night.
I am rooting for it! What do you think?
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Roxanne Hsu Feldman
Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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