JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS and The Shifting Meaning of Home


Home. The concept conjures a lot of images for me.

I think of the way I have “home” programmed in my phone. It is not the number of the house I live in. It’s the number of the house I grew up in. And, though my parents still live there, I don’t call the number anymore because we all carry phones in our pockets. Still, this is how I’ve labelled “home” for years and the thought of re-labelling it doesn’t sit well.

I think of the various apartments I’ve lived in over the years. The first place I lived in, outside of my parent’s house and university dorms, was a collegetown two-bedroom I rented for $400 a month with my best friend. The couch puffed up in memories of smoke whenever I plopped down on it. It’s where we proudly rolled an ancient television set outside on warm days, which earned us respect from classmates and passersby. The lease ended upon graduation and, *poof*, an entire 4-year experience and, the person I was during that time, gone. I remember it, sometimes, a life untethered. One without any responsibility, it seemed, not to children, mortgages, or jobs.

I think of the home I live in now, the first place I have ever “owned”. It’s a weathered Cape that surprises people, when they walk inside, with its efficient Mary-Poppins-bag layout; the way it appears larger and more spacious than they imagined when they first looked at its tiny frame.

I think of the people inside these spaces. My mother, before we talked into cordless phones, how she sat curled up in a dining room chair, the telephone chord stretching across the floor plan. My red-haired son, now four years old, crawling across the hardwood floor of a cramped Brooklyn apartment while my husband pushed around sweet-smelling onions in a non-stick pan.

I remember leaving many of these four walls, these roofs, to step outside and breathe fresh air, head and heart dizzy with bad news. A heart attack. A cancer diagnosis. A death I hadn’t expected. How unmoored I could become, the ground beneath my feet no longer solid. With loss imminent, the spaces inside me, became empty. And the places I occupied felt cold.

When I sat down to write the first draft of what would become my first published novel, Just Under the Clouds, I was a new mother. I wore the identity like a scratchy, ill-fitting coat. My office, where I wrote and worked, had turned into a nursery. I had a corner of the couch I could write at. It smelled of spit-up and there was an imprint in the cushion where I had sat and nursed an infant for hours. I wondered how to be. Who to be. I turned toward the part of my identity I could keep in this new phase of life. Writer. 

I didn’t know, when I first started this book, that I would be writing about homelessness. I wanted to write about a 12 year old girl named Cora who loved surveying and climbing all the trees in Brooklyn. I knew she was searching for something, but, for what? As I explored her search, as she climbed sturdy trees, and sought out seeds and roots, I realized she was searching for stability, a feeling of being grounded and whole. It sounded a lot like what I was looking for. A way to feel at home. 

So began Cora’s search. And my own. As I thought about home, I thought of the many places I lived. But I also thought of the person I was in those spaces. The people who crossed the same floorboards with me. The experiences and feelings I left behind when I moved on.

I realized that home can be a place. But it can also be a person. Or a feeling. And it shifts as our lives do.


Melissa Sarno is a children’s writer based in the lower Hudson Valley where she lives with her husband and two children. Just Under the Clouds, her debut novel for middle grade readers, is out now.

The only thing she loves more than writing books is reading them. She celebrates middle grade and picture books on the B&N Kids Blog and she’s the YA and Children’s Book Reviews Editor for Cleaver Magazine. She also loves to hike, run, bake cakes, and take photos.



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