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Book Review

Clayton Bryd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Clayton Byrd loves his grandfather, Cool Papa. He loves hearing him play his electric guitar, Wah-Wah Nita, in Washington Square Park with a group called The Bluesmen. He especially loves it when he’s allowed to join in with his blues harp, which he would never call a harmonica.

Since Clayton’s mother often works double shifts at the hospital, she doesn’t know he and Cool Papa sneak off to play in the park. Clayton’s mother dislikes blues altogether. She resents her father and has bad memories from her childhood of him leaving for long stretches to play his music.

When Cool Papa dies suddenly, Clayton is devastated. His mother only makes things worse by selling all of Cool Papa’s things — including Wah-Wah Nita — for very little money at a garage sale. His grief worsens when his teacher assigns The Four Corners of the World as their next classroom reading book. Clayton can’t bring himself to tell Ms. Treadwell that Cool Papa had this same book in his lap when he died.

Clayton begs to read something else, and he falls asleep every time it’s read aloud in class. Ms. Treadwell gets angry, and Clayton’s classmates start to tease him. When the school tells Clayton’s mother about his sleeping, she gets angry and takes away his blues harp. The next day, he cuts class, returns home and digs the harmonica out of his mother’s drawer. He takes the $17 he has in his bank and sets out to find the Bluesmen so he can travel with them.

Clayton goes on the subway. A group of young men do a rap and dance performance in his train car, hoping for tips. Clayton pulls out his blues harp and joins them, and the money starts rolling in. They urge him to come with them. The oldest boy is known as Train Ear, because he can hear oncoming trains from far away. He takes Clayton’s porkpie hat, the one item of Cool Papa’s he still owns. Clayton vows to get it back and follows the rappers through the subways. He narrowly avoids being hit by a train when he drops his blues harp near the tracks. Throughout all of Clayton’s encounters with new people and surroundings, he reminds himself of his grandfather’s words: “Look sharp. Be cool.”

Clayton finally gives up on the hat. He makes it to Washington Square Park, only to learn that the Bluesmen have already left for the season. He reluctantly heads home, knowing he will have to tell his mother everything he’s done. He runs into Train Ear and the others again on the ride home. Train Ear says he’ll return Clayton’s hat if he’ll play with them once more. As Clayton performs on the train with them, police surround the boys and take them to headquarters for causing a ruckus.

Clayton’s mother picks him up at the police station, and they argue. At home, she calls Clayton’s father and tells him to come get the boy. Clayton’s mother is generally aloof toward Clayton’s dad, Mr. Miller. She only allows Clayton to spend time with him once a month. She has never married him despite his attempts to make them a family.

When Mr. Miller arrives, he privately and gently tries to convince Clayton’s mother she’s making things worse for their grieving son. Mr. Miller and Clayton talk about Cool Papa on the drive to his home. Clayton asks what happens to people when they die. His dad laughs and responds that people believe different things, so it’s all in what you believe. But no one really knows.

In the aftermath of his adventure, Clayton is given a pass from reading The Four Corners of the World. His mother starts to be more gentle and even surprises Clayton by getting Wah-Wah Nita back for him.

Christian Beliefs

Clayton’s mother takes him to see Pastor Early when the boy is struggling after Cool Papa’s death. Clayton recalls how he used to think Pastor Early was God. He was made to pray to God at home, so he was anxious when he learned they were going to the house of God. He asked Pastor Early to marry his parents, and he became angry when the “all-powerful and all-knowing” wouldn’t grant his petition.

After this embarrassing incident, Clayton’s mother relegated him to children’s church. Clayton plays What Wonderous Love is This? on the blues harp while he’s waiting, thinking it is like a blues song with a question that needs an answer. Pastor Early says Cool Papa was released from pain and that it was his time to go. Clayton thinks the pastor is wrong, because Cool Papa wasn’t that old, sick or frail.

Other Belief Systems

Clayton has a short list of beliefs, but he hopes Cool Papa went into the air, like music does, after he died. He wants to be able to feel his grandpa near. Clayton asks his father where a person’s spirit goes when he dies. His father laughs and says no one really knows. He says people believe different things, so it’s all in what a person believes. Clayton is comforted by the simplicity of his father’s answer and tries to think about what he believes.

Authority Roles

Clayton’s mother remains resentful of Cool Papa’s neglect during her childhood, even after he passes away. She resists when Mr. Miller suggests Clayton needs to see a grief counselor. She ultimately takes Clayton to see Pastor Early.

Clayton’s mother frequently gets angry when Clayton does anything that reminds her of her father or Clayton’s father. Mr. Miller is much better able to recognize Clayton’s grief and struggle. He urges Clayton’s mother to pay attention to the boy’s needs. He also listens to Clayton and offers insight.




Clayton's mother won't marry his father.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Lying: Clayton frequently lies about where he’s going or what he’s doing.

Stealing: Another kid takes Clayton's hat.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

8 to 12


Rita Williams-Garcia






Record Label



Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers


On Video

Year Published



Kirkus starred review, 2017; Publisher’s Weekly starred review, 2017; National Book Award Longlist, 2017


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