Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia; HarperCollins, 176 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
Clayton Byrd dreams of the day his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, will finally nod him in for a blues harp solo with his blues buddies in Washington Square Park, a favorite excursion the two keep secret from Clayton’s mother, who has never forgiven her father for his many failings as a parent.
But when Clayton’s grandfather dies, his mother gives away all his records and musical instruments and forbids Clayton from playing his harmonica. All Clayton has left of his grandpa is his porkpie hat.
Shell-shocked with grief, Clayton decides to skip school and find his own way on the subway to Washington Square to find the Blues Men before they head South, a journey that brings him to the attention of some terrifying companions, a wakeup call that ultimately brings him a way to share and heal from his grief.
This lovely novel, poignant as a blues song, explores a child’s experience of profound grief, and how lonely that can be when adults don’t comprehend the enormity of the loss. Rita Williams-Garcia wrote the excellent “One Crazy Summer,” a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award along with two sequels, “P.S. Be Eleven” and “Crazy in Alabama.”
Lighter Than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot by Matthew Clark Smith; illustrated by Matt Tavares; Candlewick Press, $16.99.
The little-known but fascinating story of flight pioneer Sophie Blanchard takes young readers back to the “balloon mania” of late 18th-century Paris and the very first manned balloon flight by the brothers Mongolfier and “their mad dreams of floating bags in the sky.” (So different was that time from our own, an author’s note at the end explains, that when an unmanned hydrogen balloon came to rest in a village outside Paris, terrified villagers tore it to shreds with pitchforks.)
Little is known about Sophie’s early life but she married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who, with John Jeffries, had been the first to cross the English Channel in a balloon. She flew with her husband, then on solo balloon flights, continuing to give ballooning shows after her husband’s death. (On one occasion, she flew so high she passed out from the thin air.)
Ballooning was a very dangerous business and Sophie came to a tragic end, a fact the author wisely includes in an afterword, and not the story. The marvelous illustrations are by the author-illustrator of last year’s “Crossing Niagara” about daredevil Blondin.