Hi guys! I am starting off the first full week of my last semester of high school. It’s pretty crazy to think about that. I mean, I’m graduating this year!!! It’s almost a real reality. The journey leading up to this moment feels very surreal. Today on the blog, Melissa Sarno and I are having a conversation over her MG realistic fiction debut novel Just Under the Clouds. It’s high up on my TBR, so I can’t wait to read it! Enjoy!
About the Book
Can you still have a home if you don’t have a house?
Always think in threes and you’ll never fall, Cora’s father told her when she was a little girl. Two feet, one hand. Two hands, one foot. That was all Cora needed to know to climb the trees of Brooklyn.
But now Cora is a middle schooler, a big sister, and homeless. Her mother is trying to hold the family together after her father’s death, and Cora must look after her sister, Adare, who’s just different, their mother insists. Quick to smile, Adare hates wearing shoes, rarely speaks, and appears untroubled by the question Cora can’t help but ask: How will she find a place to call home?
After their room at the shelter is ransacked, Cora’s mother looks to an old friend for help, and Cora finally finds what she has been looking for: Ailanthus altissima, the “tree of heaven,” which can grow in even the worst conditions. It sets her on a path to discover a deeper truth about where she really belongs.
1. Why do you love writing? When did you first have a love for writing, and how was it formed?
I love writing because I love getting in a character’s head and living there. I love listening to a voice and following it to understand the heart of the story. And I love exploring themes so I can make sense of my own life. I also like finding just the right rhythm for a sentence. And, the challenge of puzzling through a story and unlocking mysteries and connections.
I started writing when I was around eight years old. My father brought a home-computer in the early 1980s. There was only one game on the computer, PacMan, and, I got bored with it so I turned to the only other thing I could actually do on the computer and that was to play around on a word-processing program. There was just the cursor and the keyboard, and I started fooling around with words and stories. Soon, I started writing by hand in lined marble notebooks whenever I could.
2. What are your favorite books, genres, and authors? Which ones have impacted you and your writing style the most?
I love reading fiction. I prefer realistic fiction but I also like quirk, some absurdity, a hint of magic, or surrealism. I guess you could say literary fiction is my favorite genre. Some of my favorite children’s authors are: Kate DiCamillo, Sharon Creech, Rebecca Stead, Ali Benjamin, Jaqueline Woodson, Beth Kephart, and Rita Williams Garcia. On the adult fiction side, I love George Saunders, Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri, Paul Yoon, Aimee Bender, and Elizabeth Strout. I think they’ve all impacted me in different ways. Many of these authors have very lyrical, rhythmic prose, and I am attracted to that as a reader and writer.
3. What do you do when you’re not writing? Is writing a part-time or full-time job?
Writing fiction is something I have to fit into the tiny cracks and openings in my day. There are many days when I do not fit it in. I have a one year old and four year old who keep me very busy. I am also a freelance writer for many children’s media companies where I write content for toys, games, magazines, learning software, podcasts and more.
4. Your debut MG realistic fiction novel Just Under the Clouds follows the story of Cora and her family as they try to navigate homelessness after her father’s death. Since homelessness affects nearly half a million individuals in America–including almost 60,000 families–how does your novel explore the harsh reality of homelessness for young readers, and what do you hope to achieve when a child picks up your novel?
Just Under the Clouds focuses on the instability of homelessness, as Cora and her family seek permanence in their housing situation. I tried to be realistic about the unsafe conditions of many shelters and the emotional stress of not having a permanent home. But, ultimately, this is a hopeful story about the true meaning of home; how it can be more than a place, and shift and change as we do. I hope the story will encourage readers to think about what home means to them. And I hope they will find compassion for themselves and others in Cora’s situation.
5. One of the main messages in Just Under the Clouds is what the true meaning of home is. What is home to you? In your life, what do you call home–does it include a place, certain people, special things, a feeling of security?
Since publishing this book, I have talked to many adults and children about what home means to them. For most, home is more than a place, it’s a feeling. Always, I hear the same words: home is family, safety, acceptance, and love. For me, home is all of those things, and I would include nature: a place where we all belong and are accepted.
6. How can children and their parents help the homeless, whether they be strangers on the street or close friends and relatives?
I would encourage people to reach out in their communities and help the organizations already doing the great work of assisting those who need it. One critical thing we can all do, always: Listen to people’s stories and share them. Stories can move the world.
7. How did you first stumble upon the Tree of Heaven, and how does it serve as a special metaphor for resilience and growth in the worst of conditions in both your story and your life?
We’ve all mostly likely stumbled upon Tree of Heaven alongside highways and roads, where it tends to grow rampant. I first came across it when taking photos around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, where Just Under the Clouds is set. I saw it during winter, growing up toward the clouds. However, I didn’t know that it was Tree of Heaven until I talked to some experts at the Gowanus Canal Conservancy about plant life there. The name is so beautiful and it is the perfect metaphor for Cora and her family, who thrive even when conditions in their lives are less than ideal.
8. Since Cora has a great passion for identifying and climbing trees, do you share a similar love? Have you been involved in any tree-related activities or environmental preservation efforts?
I love trees. I like being near them and I love to take photos of them. When I was a little girl, I used to sit in a tree in my front yard. However, I’ve never been much of a climber. Bark can really scrape up your hands and I’ve never liked that feeling!
When researching for Just Under the Clouds, I participated in the New York City Tree Census, called Trees Count, where volunteers across the city surveyed every street in all 5 boroughs to determine the health, identity, and number of street trees in all of New York. I learned a lot about trees and how to identify them, although there are only a few trees I can identify without any help or guidance: a london plane tree, a honey Locust, and a Tulip tree.
9. What makes you the proudest being a debut Middle Grade author in the wonderful kidlit community? Why do you love the MG community very much?
I’m proud to be a debut MG author because the quality of children’s books that are released by the industry is outstanding. To know that my work is a part of all that is a true honor. It’s an honor, also, to write for middle graders. They are sophisticated, intelligent readers who are earnest, kind, curious, and hopeful. Their open hearts and minds inspire me.
10. Where does the title “Just Under the Clouds” come from? How does it relate with Cora’s personal struggles and growth throughout the book?
This book went through many titles. I queried it as The Tree Book. It sold as Next to Nothing. And, from there, my editor and I went back and forth with a few titles that never felt right to me. One day, I was reading some poetry by Mary Oliver. I discovered her poem: The Swan. There is a line in it: “And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds.”
I loved the way it sounded. It reminded me of the photo I took of Tree of Heaven. And it connected to a chapter in the book where Cora and her new friend look up at the clouds and make some important confessions. Trees, too, have this way of looking like they are just below the line of clouds. It captured Cora’s yearning and hopefulness, looking toward her future, toward something better for herself and her family.
11. What could we expect from you in the future? Are there any secrets you would like to share?
My next MG book, A Swirl of Ocean, will be out next summer. It’s a book about a girl who captures ocean water in a jar and swallows it in order to understand something about who she is and where she came from. It’s a story about family, dreams, and secrets.
12. Before you go, would you like to share any advice you have to any aspiring authors or writers?
Remember that the work matters. When you’re facing rejection, when you make little or no money off of your work, when you have other callings in your life, when everyday stuff gets in the way of you sitting down to write your story, we can often question if the writing is worth it. I can tell you that it definitely is. Stories connect us to one another. They help us understand one another. Your voice is important and we need to hear it.
Thanks so much, Melissa, for coming onto the blog! Happy New Year!
About the Author
Melissa Sarno is the author of Just Under the Clouds and the forthcoming A Swirl of Ocean. She lives in the lower Hudson Valley of New York with her family. Read more about her at melissasarno.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @melissasarno.
“Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid.” — Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium
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