by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
This week, I’ve been thinking about how there are often different tactics we can try to achieve the same goal.
One proverb that comes to mind is “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” This classic (albeit violent) phrase dates back to the 17th century, when the original animal was a dog. (If you’re interested in the history, read more here!)
Another phrase is “All roads lead to Rome.” This one was most likely derived from a French poet in the Middle Ages, Alain de Lille, who said, “Mille vie ducunt hominem per secula Romam,” or, “A thousand roads lead a man forever towards Rome.”
There’s also “Six of one, half a dozen of the other,” which presents a more indifferent connotation but still implies something similar. The origins of this phrase are fuzzier, but one occurrence was recorded as early as 1831 in Romance and Reality by Letitia Elizabeth Landon, who wrote: “Were I to allot each their shares of illiberality, I should say, there are six of the one and half-a-dozen of the other.”
And since Valentine’s Day is coming up soon, I also thought of Paul Simon and how he sang about the many ways one has to leave a lover.
All this, of course, has to do with books! For me, what I try to do every day is find a way—or 50 ways—to convince a kid to read a book I believe they will love.
It’s easiest with nonfiction. You meet a kid who loves reading about sharks and you can call up a whole bunch of titles to recommend. Or, if someone is looking for a good-night picture book, I have a handy selection to suggest:
But sometimes, getting a reader to try a book (even an amazing one!) can be a bit tricky—for example, our Book of the Week, Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia.
“Strong characterizations and vivid musical scenes add layers to this warm family story.” (starred review)
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground is a wonderful, award-winning novel by a beloved author. It is about a boy named Clayton who loves nothing more than playing the blues with his grandfather Cool Papa Byrd and other bluesmen around New York City. But when Cool Papa Byrd passes away suddenly, Clayton’s mother is quick to move on: Clayton wakes up to find all his grandfather’s things being sold in a yard sale!
Nobody—not his mother, not his teacher Ms. Treadwell, not his classmates who torment him by calling him Sleepster—understands how much Clayton misses Cool Papa Byrd and the pain he is going through. So taking his blues harp, Cool Papa Byrd’s porkpie hat, a few peanut-butter crackers, and all his savings, Clayton runs away to Washington Square Park where he hopes to hook up with his grandfather’s band, the Bluesmen, who will understand.
I won’t give away the rest of the plot here, but trust me: Clayton Byrd Goes Underground is one of those life-changing reads that all kids are going to love. So our job is to figure out ways to get kids to pick up this award-winning novel and give it a try.
Here’s my plan:
1. Start with the cover art.
Let’s consider the beautiful cover of Clayton Byrd Goes Underground created by artist Frank Morrison. The scene of Clayton playing a blues harp and wearing Cool Papa Byrd’s porkpie hat invites readers’ curiosity and draws them in. (Who is this? Why is he playing a harmonica? Where is he and why is he there?) Looking at the cover together is the first way I try to draw a young reader into the story.
2. Introduce potential readers to the author.
Rita Williams-Garcia is a bestselling author who has won a Newbery Honor and three Coretta Scott King Author Awards. If every reader could meet Rita, I bet they would be inspired to read Clayton Byrd Goes Underground—and every other book Rita writes. She is incredibly compelling! And this week, we’re in luck because we have an exclusive interview video with Rita that you can watch and share in Behind the Scenes!
3. Share other books by the same author.
If a reader has loved one of Rita’s other books—such as One Crazy Summer, which won a Newbery Honor—let them know she also wrote Clayton Byrd Goes Underground. Your young readers may be more interested in trying another book by an author they already like.
4. Get a recommendation from another kid.
If we could somehow bottle that influential magic some kids have to persuade others and channel it into book recommendations, we could inspire many readers! In this case, I would find a kid who loves Clayton Byrd Goes Underground (maybe a kid who is a now a little older and read Clayton Byrd Goes Underground in middle school) and get them to give a testimonial to a student in fifth or sixth grade.
5. Read a book review.
I have a lot of appreciation and respect for book reviewers. They have to try to capture the essence of the book in one short statement. Here’s an excerpt from a particularly lyrical review from the ever-reliable Horn Book:
“As in One Crazy Summer…Williams-Garcia writes an appealing, realistic story with frequent elegant turns of phrase (‘Clayton stepped onto the subway platform, a fast- and slow-moving jigsaw puzzle with live pieces entering, exiting, milling, and turning’). The third-person voice helps to keep Clayton’s story from becoming self-absorbed, as he learns to navigate the literal and figurative underworld and then find his way back to the everyday world of family, friends, and school.” —The Horn Book (starred review)
6. Read a passage from the book.
This dramatic scene may draw kids in:
He took his blues harp out of his pocket. Wiped it, slicked it up in his mouth, and joined them in between the beat. He blew deep, hard, but never took his eyes off Train Ear. He didn’t care how he’d do it, but he wasn’t getting off the train without his hat. A pair of cops got on at the next stop. “BEATS OUT!” Train Ear shouted.
The boys turned and ran to the other end of the train, bumping into riders everywhere.“Sorry,” Clayton said. “Sorry.” But he had his eye on his grandfather’s hat, and pushed and ran to keep up with it. The homeless man stood up like a grizzly on hind legs. His newspapers fell away. A gold police shield hung around his neck. The Beat Boys and Clayton Byrd were pinned at both ends.
7. Trust a teacher’s recommendation.
We know from working with 700,000 teachers across the country that a teacher’s book recommendation—or better yet, a read-aloud in class—is pure gold for connecting kids to books they will love. This week in Book Talks, sixth grade teacher Darnell Williams discusses how much he loves sharing Clayton Byrd Goes Underground with his students (I would love to be in Mr. Williams’s class).
8. When all else fails…try bribery?
I know it sounds ridiculous to say, but sometimes, when I am so convinced that a kid will love a book but am also worried and frustrated that they won’t do it unless I force the issue, I’ll go to great lengths. This is not a scalable strategy, but once in a while, especially with a book as exceptional as Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, I’ll pull out all the stops and offer a potential reader a bona fide bribe if they would just start reading the first chapter.
Because the truth is, if you said to me, “Hey, here’s a book about a kid who loves the blues and misses his grandfather,” I wouldn’t necessarily jump at the chance to read it. But I was so blown away by Clayton Byrd Goes Underground that if I asked young readers which statement about it is true…
a. A truly great, page-turning read
b. A story about grief and a kid who is so sad that he lost his grandfather
c. About blues music and how cool it is
d. About the importance of family
e. About the dangers of the NYC subway tracks
f. About making good and bad decisions
g. About love
h. About a really interesting character you are going to identify with in one way or another
i. All of the above
…I’d want them to understand that the correct answer is “All of the above”!
My friend and colleague David Vozar also thought about how good books can be like a beautiful song.
This week, the rest of the Scholastic Book Clubs team put together their own assorted methods of persuasion for you to share the magic of Clayton Byrd Goes Underground and bring it to life for your students:
• Max shows off on the blues harp as the Book Boys share their favorite parts of Clayton Byrd Goes Underground.
• Sixth grade teacher Darnell Williams asks his students, “Where would your personal journey take you?” in Book Talks.
• Rita Williams-Garcia reveals what inspired her to write Clayton Byrd Goes Underground in an exclusive Behind the Scenes video interview.
• Your students can take a deep dive into one of the blues artists from Cool Papa Byrd’s record collection for a fun online research activity in Cooked Up from a Book.
Have we convinced you and your students to read Clayton Byrd Goes Underground? It would be pretty unseemly for me to offer you—let alone your students—a bribe, so I hope you’ll consider this post as my own personal review and my highest recommendation to try this warmhearted novel about music, love, and family. I guarantee you’ll love it!
I’d love to hear from you, especially teachers and homeschooling parents. What are your best strategies for getting kids excited about books that you know they will love—books that will change how they see themselves and the world they live in? Please let me know by emailing me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.