“Clayton Byrd Goes Underground” by Rita Williams-Garcia: A Discussion Guide for Writers

In Rita Williams-Garcia’s middle grade novel Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, the sudden loss of a beloved grandfather, a disconnect between mother and son, and the young protagonist’s desire to become a Blues musician collide. By studying Williams-Garcia’s novel, writers can examine how to write sound and musical imagery, how to weave adult relationships and points of view into a middle grade novel, and how to use secondary or ancillary characters to create conflict, mood, tension and setting.

Picture1Use the discussion questions on your own or with a book group to investigate Clayton Byrd Goes Underground. As you consider each question, take note of how your own manuscripts apply Williams-Garcia’s methods.

These discussion questions were inspired by the KidLit Book Club meeting at The Writers’ Loft. We’d love to have you join us. Check out the Loft calendar to find out about our next meeting!

Discussion Questions:

  1. Writers are encouraged to employ all five senses when creating scenes. The sounds of a car horn, a bird, or a train are more easily conveyed than the full richness of a musical style. How does Williams-Garcia effectively use words to communicate the Blues music that is essential to the relationship between Clayton and Papa Byrd in her novel?
  2. Examine the pacing and tension of the novel. The novel is roughly 150 pages long. Clayton runs away on page 70, about half way through the story, and the action picks up.  How would you compare the first half of the story in terms of pacing and tension versus the second half? Were both halves effective? Did you prefer one over the other? How would you compare the readability of both halves? When does the tension in your own manuscript start? Why? And how does that affect your manuscripts readability?
  3. How did Clayton grow or change through the story? Was he remorseful? Or did he just get caught? How did Williams-Garcia show growth and change? Was it realistic? Complete? What devices do you use in your manuscripts to show that your main character has grown or changed?
  4. A major source of conflict in the story is Clayton’s relationship with his mother. Was Mom too mean? Too nice? Or just right? How do you craft an antagonist that is believable but also relatable? Do KidLit authors get more flexibility in casting a parent in an antagonistic light because kids can relate to a parent who just doesn’t understand?
  5. Williams-Garcia lets the relationship between Clayton’s mother and grandfather and the relationship between his mother and Mr. Miller add layers to her story. She also shifts the POV from close third on Clayton, to close third on Clayton’s mother. How do you handle the adults and/or the adult relationships in your manuscript? How much attention can you give the adults and the adult relationships in a middle grade novel? How did Williams-Garcia handle them and how was it effective?
  6. Explore the train scenes and the character’s that Williams-Garcia quickly sketches. How does she give each member of the Beat Boys a distinct voice and character? How do the descriptions of the train passengers enhance the setting and add tension and mood? Do you give attention to the spectators or passersby in your own manuscripts? How can that add or detract from a story?
  7. How does Williams-Garcia explore death in her middle grade novel? The story compares the death of Clayton’s grandmother and grandfather and how they affected Clayton. Clayton is exploring his own thoughts on death and Williams-Garcia uses a pastor, passengers on a train, and Mr. Miller to add new insights. How can authors handle heavy topics like death in middle grade novels? How did Williams-Garcia use secondary characters to help Clayton explore his thoughts on death and spirituality?
  8. Does the reader miss the Blues Men at the end? How is the story aided by their absence at the end? How would the story have been different if the Blues Men had still been at the park? Do you make your main character suffer? How did having the Blues Men unavailable make Clayton suffer?

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