Clayton Byrd Goes Underground
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground
Written by Rita Williams-Garcia
Published by Amistad, 2017
Grades 3 and up
“When, Cool Papa, when?” For young Clayton Byrd, all that matters is when he’ll get finally the chance to play a twelve-bar solo on his blues harp (harmonica) with his grandfather’s blues band. Cool Papa, after all, is not just a blues guitar virtuoso, but also Clayton’s mentor and idol. Clayton’s mother doesn’t approve, harboring longstanding resentment of her father and believing that the blues is a worthless pursuit. After all, Cool Papa never seemed to care as much about her as he did the music. When Cool Papa dies suddenly and his mother removes every blues-related object from their home, Clayton’s grief, loneliness, and anger compel him to leave home and pursue the only thing left that matters to him. That means going alone underground into the New York City subway system in search of his grandfather’s band, but what he encounters, experiences, and learns there is much more than he ever imagined. Newbery Award winning author Rita Williams-Garcia offers a resounding tale of loss and hope, echoing the subject of many a blues song through complex characters, vibrant city scenes, and rhythmic lines: “He closed his eyes to hear the blues. To hear the words about searching for ‘up’ when everything around him pulled him down.” An author’s note provides information about the history of blues music and the influence it had on both Williams-Garcia’s life and the creation of this novel. Whether introduced as a read-aloud or independent reading, Clayton Byrd Goes Underground is an absorbing novel.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
- Introduction to the Blues. Use this book as part of an introductory unit to blues music. Collaborate with your school’s music teacher or a local community music organization to teach students the origins of the genre, the blues scale, characteristics and idiosyncrasies of blues music (e.g., motifs, subjects, utterances, moans, groans, etc.), and popular instruments for playing the blues. Use the resources provided in the Library of Congress digital collections and on the PBS website to play recordings of blues music, learn about famous blues musicians, and explore the history and evolution of the blues.
- Character Development. When we first meet Clayton, he is an eager, naïve boy who wants desperately to be like Cool Papa. Throughout the story, Clayton tries to navigate the various challenges and struggles he faces by channeling Cool Papa’s advice and example. Does this approach always work for him? How does Clayton grow because of what he learned from Cool Papa, and how does he grow on his own? Have students trace that development, using specific lines from the novel to support their understandings of Clayton’s grown at each stage of his development. Make sure they also identify plot points that cause changes in Clayton’s character, so they understand how the various events and experiences impact him and spur those changes.
- Character Motivation and Family Relationships and Dynamics. The relationships among Clayton’s family members are complex. How does each family member feel toward the others? What actions, thoughts, and dialogue support these feelings? Do all family members feel the same way? For example, Clayton’s mother harbors anger toward her father, Cool Papa, but Clayton adores him. Create a graphic organizer that depicts these complex family dynamics, and discuss how they each contribute to Clayton’s reasons for running away, as well as his reasons to want to return home. You might want to include this book in a novel text set about complex family relationships in some of Rita Williams-Garcia’s other novels for intermediate grade readers, such as and One Crazy Summer, S. Be Eleven, and Gone Crazy in Alabama.
- Grief, Loss, and Character Development. The characters in the novel respond to loss and grief in different ways. Clayton’s mother responds with anger, the Bluesmen respond through music, while Clayton searches for a way to express and face a multitude of emotions. Curate a text set of other children’s literature titles that deal with grief and loss (see our related Classroom Bookshelf entry for links to suggested titles). Have students read these in literature circles or other small groups, comparing and contrasting different characters’ responses to loss and the different ways they grieve.
- Metaphors and Symbolism. This novel is teeming with metaphors and symbolism, with one of the strongest being perhaps the idea of going underground into the hidden depths of the word one knows. What else could the subway tunnels stand for? What might Clayton really be running away from, running through, and running toward when he’s down there? Then there’s Cool Papa’s porkpie hat—what, besides Cool Papa himself, might that hat symbolize? Have students closely re-read specific excerpts from the text to identify the various metaphors and symbols that Williams-Garcia weaves throughout the story. Engage them in a discussion about what those symbols and metaphors represent, as well as how they add depth and complexity to the plot and characters.
- Writing the Blues. In her author’s note, Rita Williams-Garcia writes that while listening to a blues lecture given by a fellow children’s writer, she “stopped taking lecture notes and began to lock into the noise and pain that would send Clayton Byrd on his way.” Play a number of blues songs for students, providing them with lyrics to follow along with the stories they tell. Have them select a set of lyrics to flesh out into a full narrative, making sure they stick to the facts in the lyrics while elaborating upon the narrator, characters, plot, and setting. Take students through the entire writing process while they work on their blues narrative—from prewriting to publishing. Hold a classroom blues celebration, and invite students to share their narratives for their classmates, families, and friends to hear.
- Naming Instruments. Like Cool Papa, many musicians have named their guitars after events and people that were significant to him. Provide students with a list of famous instruments with names, such as B.B. King’s “Lucille,” George Harrison’s “Lucy,” Willie Nelson’s “Trigger”, and Prince’s “Cloud.” If students can name other famous instruments, have them add to the list. Have them work in small groups to research the stories behind the instrument names, as well as listen to or watch recordings of those instruments being played. Printed and online biographies of the musicians are good places to begin the research, but encourage students to also enlist the help of their school and local librarian. If students play an instrument of their own, invite them to name the instruments and write or storytell the reason and meaning behind the name.
- Music and Fashion. Music and fashion often go hand in hand, with one influencing the other so strongly that eventually they become symbolic of each other, such as Cool Papa’s porkpie hat. What are the other clothing styles that are iconic of blues music? What are the clothing styles that are iconic of other distinct musical genres (e.g., punk, glam rock, country, disco, big band, etc.)? Divide students in to small groups to research these artistic connections between music and fashion. Encourage them to seek the help of school and local librarians, in addition to conducting online searches. Invite students to create a wardrobe that symbolizes the musical genre and put on a musical fashion show.
- Blues, Jazz, and other Musical Genres. Many blues artists, such as Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, and Ray Charles, were also renowned jazz musicians. What are the similarities and differences between these two musical genres? Have students listen to samples of audio recordings, watch video footage of famous musicians, and conduct research online and at the school and/or local library to identify the history and characteristics of jazz and blues. What other musical genres have been strongly influenced by the blues? See the books and websites listed in Further Explorations for resources to launch students’ investigation.
- Going Underground. The New York City subway system is comprised of a vast network of tunnels and caverns, many of which are not used by the actual active subway cars. With your students, research the history and current state of these tunnels and underground spaces. Articles and podcasts such as those listed in Further Explorations below might be intriguing and useful starting points. Why were those spaces originally built? Why were they abandoned? How are people attempting to use them today?
Rita Williams-Garcia’s website
Blues Music – Library of Congress
The Blues – PBS
The Blues Foundation
Websites about the Blues and Jazz
http://monkinstitute.org/education/blues-and-jazz/– Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz
http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-342 – Oxford Research Encyclopedias
Articles and Podcasts about the NYC Underground
“12 Secrets of the New York Subway,” Smithsonian Magazine
“Five Secret Underground Spaces around NYC,” Time Out New York
“What Lies Beneath,” Vanity Fair
“New York Underground: Exploring City Caves and Catacombs” and “Into the Tunnels: Exploring the Underside of NYC,” NPR’s All Things Considered
“New York’s Lost Subways (Complete with Maps and Dusty Pics),” WNYC
Dumot, J. (2005). A blue so blue. Sterling.
Holiday, B., & Herzog, Jr., A. (2007). God bless the child. Ill. by J. Pinkney. HarperCollins.
Kuper, P. (2006). Theo and the blue note. Viking Juvenile.
Lester, J. (2001). The blues singers: Ten who rocked the world. Ill. by L. Cohen. Jump at the Sun.
Myers, W. D. (2000). The blues of Flats Brown. Ill. by N. Laden. Holiday House.
Myers, W. D. (2003). Blues journey. Ill. by C. Myers. Holiday House.
Schroeder, A. (1999). Satchmo’s blues. Ill. by F. Cooper. Dragonfly Books.
Williams-Garcia, R. (2010). One crazy summer. Amistad. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry.
Williams-Garcia, R. (2014). P. S. Be eleven. Amistad. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry.
Williams-Garcia, R. (2016). Gone crazy in Alabama. Amistad.
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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