Just Under the Clouds
Melissa Sarno, Author
Knopf Books for Young Readers, Jun. 5, 2018
Suitable for Ages: 8-11
Themes: Siblings, Family relationships, Loss, Homelessness, Shelter life, Belonging, Difference, Nature
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, but they are evicted from their home. 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’s 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.
Just Under the Clouds will take root in your heart and blossom long after you’ve turned the last page.
Why I like this book:
I am always searching for books on homelessness. And Melissa Sarno’s, Just Under the Clouds, offers readers a different perspective of how we view the homeless in a raw, heartbreaking, touching and hopeful way. Not all homeless people live on the streets. It’s a reminder that anyone can unexpectedly find themselves in a similar situation. When Cora’s father dies, her family is eventually evicted from their home.
The story is more character-driven than it is about the plot. Yes, the family moves from run-down apartments to homeless shelters where their safety is always an issue. But this beautiful lyrical story focuses a variety of relationships between family, friends and school. Cora is courageous and resilient and shoulders the responsibility of her sister, Adare, who is born special — her brain is deprived of oxygen at birth. Adare is my favorite character, because she has a unique perception of the world. She has a soft-song voice, says hello to everyone, stares endlessly at the sky, spins in the rain and befriends cats and crows.
Cora’s relationship with a quirky friend, Sabina, offers a happy balance to the story. Cora’s mother is an artist, who has to give up her talent to take low-paying jobs to support the family. When her mother’s childhood friend, Willa, invites them into her classy apartment, Cora is hopeful she can finally stay in one place. But how long will her mother accept Willa’s help?
The one constant in Cora’s life is her father’s “tree journal,” which he left her. He loved to map out trees in their community. Cora picks up where he has left off and it helps her feel close to her dad. She maps the trees around her, draws pictures and records seasonal information. There is a lot of symbolism for Cora ash she searches for her own “roots.”
Just Under the Clouds has a heartwarming message about understanding the struggle of others. It is a story that will create empathy among readers. It should be required reading for youth because the face of homelessness is changing.
Melissa Sarno is a freelance writer and editor with and MFA in screenwriting. She lives in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York with her family. Visit her at her website and follow her on Twitter at @melissasarno.