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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Music to the Mind and Salve to the Soul

clayton byrdGrief 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?


Roxanne Hsu Feldman 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


  1. While the sentence-level prose was elegant at times, the story itself just flat out bored me. The entire first half of the book, literally, is Clayton struggling to stay awake in school. That is the plot. For such a trim novel, I felt the topic and theme were resolved in a much too tidy and unrealistic way. I guess I disagree with Roxanne’s opinion of the ending, but I can’t put words to why at the moment.

    And I strongly disliked Clayton’s mother. I understand this was probably intentional, but I felt that some of the poor decisions she made regarding Clayton and his grieving process were too contrived. Not sure where that falls in the criteria though.

    • Reading the book puts him to sleep because of the association of bedtime story reading: it is one of his links to Cool Papa and I find this tender and authentic. The book is as much about Juanita and her identity as a neglected child as about Clayton — I find her incredibly real and a very sympathetic figure, indeed, especially given where she finds herself toward the end. This is a fully realized adult character.

  2. I struggled mightily with this title, and I am grateful that Roxanne clearly articulated the strengths of this book. Were this the Real Committee, I would likely go back and re-read (even pore over) the text.

    While I understand that comparing to an author’s past works is strictly verboten, I couldn’t help but hold this to the standards of the Gaither Girls trilogy, which in my estimation, is simply the best middle grade fiction trilogy – full stop.

    At the time of reading it, Clayton failed me. I found the plot too straightforward, the characters too broadly drawn, the theme too loosely addressed. I recognize now, based on Roxanne’s thoughts, that there are merits I didn’t respond to. I just don’t feel compelled to revisit the book and give it another go.

  3. Meredith Burton says:

    I greatly enjoyed this book, particularly its honest handling of death. Clayton’s conversation with his father was particularly moving to me as Mr. Miller was frank enough to admit he simply didn’t know what happens after death. This allows Clayton to draw his own conclusions about his grandfather’s whereabouts. I also thought Clayton’s time with the subway performers was vivid and enlightening. I liked that these characters were portrayed so well.
    It was also authentic that the author had the blues’ band move on. I felt heartbroken for Clayton at that point in the story but also realized that the author made the right decision.
    I was frustrated with Clayton’s mother but understood her decisions and feelings of anger. She was very authentic to me as a character. I did find the ending a bit abrupt, but perhaps that was because I read the novel so quickly, (couldn’t put it down). I need to go back and reread that part. And, the portions where Clayton falls asleep in school were some of my favorite parts as was the meeting Clayton and his mother have with the pastor.

  4. I have trouble talking about titles that I read long enough ago to make them a faint memory in my limbic system. I remember liking and not loving this book. Mainly, for something that you, Roxanne, see as a strength, the focus on Clayton’s mother’s relationship with her father. I feel that once the narrative tension switches to “adult issue”, it becomes dismissive of the child audience. Perhaps in this case the three generations are so intertwined, that wouldn’t be a fair complaint.

    The other is with setting. I couldn’t tell if this were a period piece or contemporary. Not having ever had the opportunity to visit the city, some of the reliance on prior knowledge of New York became confusing and dismissive to the audience that wasn’t on the inside.

    • DaNae, interesting how you find the “narrative tension switch” a weakness while I consider it a true strength: to me, allowing the young readers to get an authentic glimpse into the adults’ lives and struggle is a sign of the author respecting the intellectual and emotional capacity of the young readers. In this case, it is not over-done to make the story NOT about Clayton. The trajectory is all about how with his actions and words, the adults start seeing things differently and could begin a healing process with reconciliation as a potential outcome.

  5. I read this book several months ago, and like DaNae, I found the setting quite underdeveloped. It happens fairly often in books from the big 5 who are all situated in the New York City. I wish they would give a thought to the majority of their readers who will never go to New York but might take a more sympathetic view of the city if it were presented more carefully.
    The other thing that caught my attention was the inclusion of the mother’s point of view. It’s very unusual. Writers are routinely counseled to get rid of the parents as soon as possible, but to jump to the conclusion that to do otherwise is dismissive of the child audience is, I think, a misunderstanding of the experience of Black, Asian, Indigenous, and Hispanic families which are much more likely to live in a multi-generational household. Immigrants of all backgrounds are also far more likely to live in a three or even four generation households. I thought the inclusion of the mother’s grief gave voice to the absent father problem that is all to common in diverse communities and becoming more common with the deportation of parents. I liked this title a lot. I’m not sure it’s the most distinguished book of the year, but I was very happy to see the inclusion of the mother’s grief in parallel with her son’s.

  6. Both DaNae and Rosanne mentioned that they find the “setting” unsatisfactory — both also cited their own unfamiliarity of NYC as a reason for their feeling less connected to the tale. This reminds me of how I always had trouble visualizing and sometimes following stories taking place on a ship, until I started taking cruises and getting a sense of the layout and lingo of ships/boats. I never thought that it was because the authors’ lack of skills in describing the setting or that they presumed readers know what boat/ship life might be like. I just knew that it was me, unable to visualize the tale as vividly as after I have had some lived experiences.

    So, I am struggling to figure out whether Williams-Garcia “took for granted” that all young readers would be able to visualize the subway setting and thus did a poor job describing the setting. Or that she described the setting adequately but still couldn’t satisfy some readers. Since I am a New Yorker, I have pretty much NO way to gauge this aspect of the book: except to say that nothing feels “inauthentic” or “incorrect.” Also, even though I use the subway daily, some of the stuff that Clayton and the bebop boys did, walking the service tracks/spaces — are definitely NOT your everyday subway experiences. It’s foreign to me — but that makes it thrilling and not distancing.

    I really appreciate DaNae and Rosanne for bringing this up and hope that others could chime in. Those of you who do not live in NYC: do you also find this aspect unsatisfactory?

    In a real committee meeting – how much should we weigh our personal life experiences in our evaluation of the books?

  7. Sorry to be so late coming back to this topic. I’ve been traveling.

    Roxanne, I think the setting question gets into a tricky area involving both accessibility and also authenticity of voice–two aspects of writing often at odds with each other. I think the voice of the child here is quite strong, and so he doesn’t over narrate his surroundings. Nothing about the subway system or the streets of the neighborhood are unfamiliar to Clayton so they pass with little comment. To stop the narrative and give some little treatise on how the subway works would be so unlike him it would immediately ring false.

    But then in staying true to the voice of the urban character, the not-urban reader is left an outsider to the experience and may feel excluded by it at worst or simply confused about the details at best. Since children by their nature have limited life experience I always write with the accessibility issues in mind. I want to make sure I’m not making my reader feel stupid or on the outside of the experience my character is having, But it’s a lot of work to walk that line between being inclusive and being authentic to the characters voice and experience.

    For example when I wrote the sailing scenes in my latest book I knew they’d be outside the experience of probably 95% of my readers. So I took on authenticity readers of two types. I had a sea captain and a sailing instructor look over the sailing scenes to make sure that everything I’ve described is clear and possible. (Though I can sail, some of the things I described are far too dangerous to attempt myself) And then I had a group of readers who have never sailed read the sailing passages and ask all the questions about terminology they didn’t understand and the action of the boat that was not clear to them. And finally, I had to remain true to my characters, both from maritime families, who would naturally use the working jargon of sailing which is inherently confusing to the non-sailor. For example the sheet you pull is the rope and not the sail.
    All of which is to say, I think Williams-Garcia erred on the side of authenticity of voice which rang true to me throughout the book. But the cost of that authenticity is the exclusion of suburban and rural readers. I think it is possible to write authentically about the urban experience in a more inclusive way, but it calls for a LOT of extra work from the author and the help of a variety of outside readers.

    I’m not sure how any of this plays out for the Newbery committee. Perhaps it simply comes down to whether you value authenticity more highly than inclusivity. My writer self tends to favor the authenticity, but my teacher self is squarely on the side of being as inclusive as humanly possible.

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