A Conversation with Melissa Sarno
author of JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS
published by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Interview by Kathryn Kulpa
Melissa Sarno reviews children’s and young adult books for Cleaver and has just published her debut middle-grade novel, Just Under the Clouds (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018). It tells the story of Cora, a middle-school girl trying to find a place to belong. Cora’s father always made her feel safe, but now that he has died, she and her mom and her sister Adare have been moving from place to place, trying to find a stable and secure home they can afford. Cora is also dealing with bullying at school and is sometimes challenged by looking after her sister, who has learning differences. But her life holds some good things, too, like a free-spirited new friend and her father’s tree journal, where he kept notes about the plants he took care of. Cora has kept his book and uses it as a way to record her own observations and feelings as she looks for her own true home in the world.
While many children experience homelessness, it’s a subject that is seldom explored in contemporary children’s fiction, and Melissa Sarno has given these children a voice that speaks from the heart. The Horn Book Magazine called Just Under the Clouds a “thought-provoking debut about the meaning of home and the importance of family,” and Kirkus Reviews praised it as “troubling, affecting, and ultimately uplifting.”
I had the chance to speak with Melissa recently about Just Under the Clouds and her journey as a first-time novelist.—Kathryn Kulpa
Kathryn Kulpa: First, I’d like to congratulate you on the publication of your first novel! I’m sure it’s been a journey of many steps. Can you talk about some of the exciting moments along the way? Did you find an agent first? When did you get the news that Just Under the Clouds was going to be published, and how did you feel?
Melissa Sarno: Thanks so much, Kathryn! It’s been a long journey and I’m thrilled that my debut novel is finally out in the world.
I wrote three novels over the course of eight years before writing Just Under the Clouds; two that never found an agent and one that was submitted to publishers but never sold. Shortly after that experience, my first agent left the business. So, it was a huge and happy moment when I found a new agent who was enthusiastic about this book. She has been the perfect advocate for my work.
I learned that Just Under the Clouds had sold when my agent called to share the offers from the book’s auction. I heard the news while my then two-year-old son was tantrumming in the middle of the parking lot at the playground (imagine one hand holding the phone, the other trying to hold him up while he screamed and went body-limp on the pavement, refusing to leave.) When I finally got home to sit with the news, he napped and I cried (happy tears) all by myself because I had just moved to a new town and I literally knew no one. There was barely even any furniture in my home! Soon after my agent sent me a photo of a little blooming tree. My editor had sent it to her for me because Just Under the Clouds features a tree. I knew it was the beginning of something really lovely in my life. I’ll never forget that moment of knowing things were about to bloom.
KK: On your website, you talk about writing ‘secret stories’ for years, starting as a kid. I can relate! Did any of those stories make it into this novel? Do you have others that you have, or may want to publish?
I wonder how many of us wrote “secret” stories as kids. I wrote a lot as a child and I still have many of those stories in notebooks and binders.
MS: I wonder how many of us wrote “secret” stories as kids. I wrote a lot as a child and I still have many of those stories in notebooks and binders. None of those ideas made it into Just Under the Clouds. But my next book, A Swirl of Ocean, which will be out next summer, actually features a strange neighbor I had as a kid. We called her Turtle Lady, because she kept pet turtles in her backyard. I had a lot of weird interactions with her throughout my life. Truth is always stranger than fiction and I can’t tell you how many times I have written pieces of her story over the years (my first attempt was when I was 14.) I’m happy she has finally found a place in this book.
KK: One of the things that really struck me about Just Under the Clouds was that there isn’t just one way to be homeless. I think many of us tend to think of “the homeless” as a permanent group of people who may be older, mentally ill, and/or substance abusers. But Cora and her family challenge those stereotypes. They’re not actually living on the streets. Maybe you’d characterize them more as “housing insecure.” They have places to stay, but not the safety and stability we usually associate with “home.” Can you talk about how you came to write about Cora? Any research, personal experience, or people you met that inspired these characters?
MS: When I first starting writing Cora’s story, I had intended to write about a city girl who loved to climb trees. As I tried to understand why she gravitated toward trees, I came to understand that I was writing about a girl who was looking for stability and permanence, which led me to write about a child seeking home.
Cora’s story is not based on personal experience or anyone’s experience I know. But I did talk to some friends who experienced homelessness as children and I read Invisible Child by Andrea Elliott in the NYTimes. That powerful and heartbreaking piece about a homeless girl in New York City really opened my eyes to that experience and I learned that I had a lot of misconceptions about homelessness that fit the stereotypes you mention here. Unfortunately, many more families live the way Cora’s family does, moving from place to place struggling to find that safety and security.
KK: I love how Cora keeps her father’s tree notebook and how this keeps her connected to his memory and gives her a way to map her own life. Was the notebook always a part of the story?
MS: Yes, the notebook was always part of the story. I wanted Cora to have a way to connect to her father through his field journal. It becomes a place for Cora to make sense of the world around her, through art and through tracking and surveying trees and plants around Brooklyn.
KK: And speaking of trees, the use of the “tree of heaven” and the urban setting made me think of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Was it a deliberate homage? Was that a book that influenced you as a young writer?
MS: It’s funny, I always felt that Just Under the Clouds was connected to my love of The Secret Garden and the ways we can help one another grow. I was even going to have Cora love that book but I felt it was a little too on the nose.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn must have been rattling around in my subconscious for a long time because I read Betty Smith’s beautiful book when I was a teenager. It wasn’t until my editor said, “isn’t the “tree of heaven” the same tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?” that I even made the connection. I remember running to my bookshelf and frantically re-reading the first few chapters for the first time in two decades. I thought, well, I’ve created an homage whether I meant to or not! Talk about on the nose!
KK: As an adult reader, it was hard not to feel, at times, that Cora’s mother’s determination not to accept help from her friend, Willa (with the subway pass, for example, or Adare’s learning differences) was hurting Cora and Adare or putting them at risk. I sensed she had her own complicated backstory—one Cora wouldn’t know. Would you like to talk a little more about this aspect of the story?
MS: Cora learns a little bit about her mother throughout the story but I do imagine that her mother has a more complex backstory. She has lost her husband and, with that loss, an entire support system. She alludes to the fact that there is no one to lean on where she grew up. And her oldest friend, Willa, doesn’t approve of her life choices (her career as an artist or the man she married) so it’s hard for her to let Willa in. That pride felt important for me to uphold, even if it might lead her to making choices others might not agree with. I hope that readers recognize her fierce love for her children and empathize with her plight.
KK: If a child Cora’s age who is experiencing homelessness reads this book, what would you hope they would take away from it?
MS: I hope it allows all readers to question or redefine their concept of home and see that they are deeply connected to the world around them in different ways. And I hope it helps those who need the mirror of this experience feel less alone.
KK: Who are some children’s or YA authors that have been important to you? Were there some books that really resonated with you as a child or teen?
MS: As I mentioned, I always loved classics like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables. As a kid, my favorite author was Cynthia Voigt, who has written many books for children, including the Tillerman cycle. That series was the first realistic fiction about contemporary life I remember reading. I also love children’s authors Ali Benjamin, Jaqueline Woodson, Kate DiCamillo, Gary D. Schmidt, Rita Williams Garcia, and Rebecca Stead because they show me what’s possible when writing for young readers
KK: I see that you have a new book coming out next year. Is it about the same characters? Can you tell us something about it?
MS: A Swirl of Ocean will be out next summer and it’s a separate standalone novel for young readers. It’s about an adopted girl who swallows the ocean to understand something about who she is and where she came from. It’s all about dreams, and secrets, and the surprising ways we are all connected.
Melissa Sarno is a freelance writer and editor with an MFA in screenwriting. She lives in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York with her family. Just Under the Clouds, her debut novel for middle grade readers, is out now. Read more about her at melissasarno.com.
Author Photo: Katie Burnett
Kathryn Kulpa was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her flash chapbook Girls on Film (Paper Nautilus) and received the First Series Award in Short Fiction for her story collection Pleasant Drugs(Mid-List Press). Her work has appeared in Jellyfish Review, Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly, and Evansville Review, and she serves as flash fiction editor for Cleaver magazine. Kathryn leads writing workshops in public libraries throughout Rhode Island and has been a visiting writer at Wheaton College. She was born in a small state, and she writes short stories.