Our July book club pick was JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS by Melissa Sarno. This incredibly touching story set in Brooklyn, NY, is an intimate look at the life of Cora, her little sister, and her mother, struggling to find a place to call home. The book combines so many true-to-life details, about the houseboats on Gowanus Canal, the tree names lining the streets of Brooklyn, an actual Miss Li and a stray cat, that it felt as tangible as touching the bark of an actual tree (the Tree of Heaven, perhaps) and made Cora and her family feel like real people.
At the beginning, Cora lives in a homeless shelter with her sister Adare, who is “different” from other girls her age, and her mother, who tries to provide for her family with a minimum-wage job. Cora’s horticulturist father has been gone for some time, and they have moved from place to place. Cora finally feels like she wants a permanent place to settle her roots, so when their residence is raided and her family moves to her mother’s friend Willa’s fancy apartment, Cora wants the apartment to be home for keeps. She wants her sister Adare to understand things, and she wants her mother to figure out their path.
Meanwhile, like any middle-grader, she has to figure out how to pass her math class and deal with the classmate making fun of her. She makes friends with Sabina, who lives in a houseboat and prompts a question: How does living in one house but moving from town to town differ from moving from home to home? Cora doesn’t quite know, but Sabina eventually leads Cora to the Tree of Heaven, one of Cora’s father’s favorite trees.
Cora’s dogged pursuit of climbing the Tree of Heaven resonated with me because, so often, we pursue goals like her. What happens when we reach it? What happens if we don’t? It’s the journey that makes the pursuit valuable. The lessons we learn are like scars, branches, and leaves on a tree. And yet, we keep growing. Just like Cora.
To learn more about the author, or for printable drawing pages, activities, recipes, and discussion questions, check out our Middle Grade at Heart newsletter devoted to Just Under the Clouds here.
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The Middle Grade @ Heart book club pick for August is WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW by Cindy Baldwin! Stay tuned for more posts about this awesome book and don’t forget to join us for our Twitter chat on JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS on August 7!