MG at Heart Book Club Book Review: JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS, by Melissa Sarno


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!

Being a Book Witch & a Conversation w/ Melissa Sarno: Books Between, Episode 55

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!


Hi everyone and welcome to the Books Between Podcast! I believe in empowering children by helping them discover who they are as readers.  My goal is to help you connect kids between 8-12 with fabulous reading experiences and share inspiring conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen.

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 11.49.03 PM.pngI’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of two, a 5th grade teacher, and thinking about how much I LOVE our public libraries and how much they are needed. My daughters and I just launched our summer Library Crawl where we try to hit as many public libraries in the area as can and explore their unique services and collections and just get to know them. Libraries are the heart of our communities. Please support them.

This is Episode #55 and oday I want to chat with you about being a book witch, and then I’ll share a conversation with Melissa Sarno, author of Just Under the Clouds!  

I have three super quick announcements for you! First is a Middle Grade at Heart Book Club update. The August pick is Where the Watermelons Grow, the September pick is The House That Lou Built and in October we will be reading Three Rules of Everyday Magic. And all of those authors are scheduled to come on the show – so stay tuned for that!

And announcement #2 – don’t forget that Monday nights are the #MGBookChat Twitter chats with upcoming topics like #ownvoices, the importance of refugee stories, and books that battle mental health stigmas. So set a reminder for Mondays at 9pm EST and check out #MGBookChat on Twitter for conversations and collaboration between educators, librarians, and authors.

And – finally, announcement #3. This is something that has been semi-secretly in the works for a few months now, but I am so happy to make it official. NerdCamp Central New York is ON for next summer – August 6, 2019! So – if you want to experience some of that NerdCamp magic and you’re able to make it to Syracuse, NY – save the date! And you can follow @NerdCampCNY on Twitter for more updates.

Main Topic – Being a Book Witch

And you can go ahead and replace that W with a B if you’d like.  So – I had a topic planned for today. I had an outline, things were coming together, and then I saw a post. And then some tweets. From several people, including Donalyn Miller, who were attending a recent Scholastic Reading Summit.  It was it from a presentation by Annie 51RQIFvbUvL._SX408_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgWard – or at least referencing her work From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Capable, Confident Readers.   And it was one slide showing ways that educators and parents can be what she called “Book Wardens”. And well, it struck me so forcefully. And made me think of all those times as a teacher and as a parent, I have been that Book Witch. I am recovering – but yeah…. that was me.

So I scrapped my other topic and that’s what I want to talk to you about today. First – ways we might not even realize that we’re being book snobs and inadvertently turning kids off to reading – both from Annie’s presentation and from my own mistakes. And then some thoughts on ways we can do better. Although to be up front with you – my understanding of this is evolving. Starting with the first bullet on that slide.

1. Confining kids to “just right” books – gulp. That is a phrase I have used ever since… I don’t know when! A have a big lesson on choosing “just right” or “good fit” books complete with a whole array of shoes I bring in to demonstrate! But now I am wondering… who SETS the criteria for “right”? Is it.. Level?  Genre? Format? Perceived complexity? Something I’ve started doing is turning these questions back on myself. Okay Corrina, what’s a “just right” book for you? Well -it depends! What am I in the mood for? What do I want to learn? What are my friends all reading that looks amazing and I want IN on THAT conversation!  When I think about it that way, it’s not really about picking a book off the shelf and reading the first page and counting the errors on my fingers. Adults don’t do that! And – we are definitely NOT picking from the bin labeled Level Z or only reading within our lexile level.  So why are we asking kids to do that? What DO we do? We weigh all those factors, gather some options, and try them out. If it’s too hard, well…. then…. I’m just going to put The Iliad off to the side for now. I think we need to trust kids more. And be more open about how you actually go about choosing books. And maybe I don’t totally drop the phrase “just right” but shift it to be child-centered and NOT mean “just right” from MY point of view.

2. Express book snobbery. So, you might be a book snob, if you’ve said one these things (and I’ve said a few of them in the past…):

  • “Graphic novels are not real reading.”
  • “Don’t just listen to that audio book – make sure you are following along in your book.”
  • “I only really like literary books – you know award-winners.”
  • “Well, I’ve never heard of that book!”
  • “NEVER watch the movie before reading the book!”
  • “I get all my book recommendations from NPR.”
  • “They’re reading THAT? I guess it’s better than reading nothing!”
  • “I don’t watch TV. Never.  I just read.”
  • “I only read books for adults.” (Credit to Sarah Threlkeld for suggesting that one.)
  • “Yeah, we’re only reading CLASSICS in this class.”
  • “Romance novels are all the same.” (And you can replace romance with mysteries, westerns, fantasy.)
  • “Are you reading a picture book? Maybe you should choose something more your age.”
  • “You dog-ear your pages? You beast!”
  • “Fan Fiction doesn’t count toward your reading minutes.”

So – that last one? About the fan fiction? Was me – a few years ago. But then, I discovered that Angie Thomas (you know – author of New York Times Bestselling, multiple award-winning The Hate U Give) got her start writing fanfiction for her favorite soap opera. And suddenly I thought, maybe I’m being kind of a witch about this. And then, I discovered Star Wars fan fiction and I was hooked. I think I spent about a week just immersed in alternative Star Wars universes. So go ahead – come at me about the fan fiction!

3. Look askance at funny, edgy, or “forbidden” topics. So, confession time.  Way back when I was just getting starting as a teacher and starting to build my classroom library, I would ONLY purchase what I, the book witch, deemed as high quality literature. Captain Underpants? Comics? Joke books? Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Uh…no. And oh do I owe those kids an apology. I was flat out wrong. And clearly not remembering all the Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes books that I devoured as a young kid. I’m happy to say our class is filled with Dav Pilkey books and all kids of funny, light-hearted books. Because, wow – don’t we need that now? And as far as edgy or “forbidden” topics – that has always rubbed me the wrong way. Edgy according to who? I’ve seen adults roll their eyes when a 10 year old picked a book about the WWE.  I’ve seen adults try to ban books with characters who are dealing with substance abuse. And I’ve seen adults pluck books with gay characters out of their kids hands. Who are we to tell kids that their family, their life, their experiences are “too edgy” and not allowed.

4. Frowning upon rereading. Yup – this is another one I have done regularly. And I think it comes from a well-intentioned place. When you know how many amazing books are out there, you want kids to experience that. And I think for me, I have the bias that I am not typically a HUGE rereader. Aside from a few books that I might reread for school or book club (like Home of the Brave, or Wonder), I find it so hard to resist the siren call of my TBR pile.  But last year, instead of giving side-eye to those kids rereading Dork Diaries or Smile for the 3rd or 4th (or 12th!) time – instead, I tried to act excited and say, “Wow – what do you love so much about that book? What are you noticing now that you never noticed the first time you read it?” And the reframing has helped me recognize more value in rereading. And those conversations help me understand my readers better and offer them similar titles they might enjoy to expand their reading palate.

5. Imposing Accountability Measures for Reading. I’ll admit – I had to think about this one for a minute. But I think what this is getting at is when ‘points programs” like AR (Accelerated Reader) are used to confine student reading in an attempt to make sure there is tangible proof of reading. Accountability measures might include parent sign-offs on a reading log or requiring a summary each night. That imposition on reading.  Instead – the best “accountability” is a culture of reading where kids want to talk about what they are reading. And your tangible proof are conferences and conversations and observations.

6. Treating some books like “dessert”. And only allowing kids to read them after they’ve read something more suitable. Usually when I see this – those “dessert” books are graphic novels, or Minecraft books. Now – there are times when I will say, “Let’s take some some time to read our Book Club novels. And if you finish your section for the day, read whatever you want.” But always treating SOME TYPES of books like just fluff – is being a book witch.

So those were the main points from Annie Ward. But I’ll add one more.

7. Not letting kids take the books home. I used to treat MY books like they were GOLD. And I would let kids read them in class but then not let them out of my sight. I lost fewer books – but I also lost readers. Now – they go home with them. Usually they come back, but if not – I just hope that book meant so much to that child that they couldn’t bare to part with it.  

So, I am a recovering Book Witch! And I mentioned some things we can do instead, but to quickly sum up, here they are:

  • Let kids take the lead in what “just right” reading means for them – including their mood and what they are interested in, the format, the social connections they want to form around that reading – and not just a level.
  • Don’t be a book snob! Openly embrace and book talk all genres and formats and expand your horizons.
  • Watch your words and your body language to make sure you are not looking down on kids’ reading choices or making them feel ashamed for reading a text some might consider “edgy.”
  • If a child is rereading a book – ask them about it! Or ask them to book talk it to the class!
  • Instead of cumbersome attempts at reading accountability, instead – watch your kids, have conversations about the books, confer with them and have them read to you.
  • Let kids take books home. And be gracious when they get lost or damaged.
  • And finally – trust the kids and trust the books.

If you want to know more about Annie Ward’s work with co-author Stephanie Harvey, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Capable, Confident Readers.  And as always, we are learning together and helping each other out, so please share your thoughts about overcoming being a book witch.  You can tag me on Twitter, Instagram, and now Facebook – our handle is @books_between or email me at and I’d love to share your ideas.

Melissa Sarno – Interview Outline

Joining me this month for our Middle Grade at Heart interview with Melissa Sarno is author Julie Artz. We got a chance to sit down together last month to chat about Just Under the Clouds.

Take a listen…

CA: For our listeners who haven’t yet read Just Under the Clouds what is this story about?

CA: One of my favorite parts of the book is when Cora goes to her remedial math class and her new teacher gives her some advice about solving algebra problems. She says: “I’ll give you a hint. It’s always easiest to start from the end. Start backward.” I’m wondering – when if your own life have you found it easier to start at the end?

JA: I loved the friendship between Cora and Sabina. They both have experienced intense loneliness due to an unconventional lifestyle, but the moment when they commit to their friendship–even though they may end up apart–was really touching. How did you come up with the idea for this complex and lovely friendship?

JA: Adare is such a vivid character despite being mostly non-verbal. What research went into creating her character?

**BONUS SPOILER SECTION: Melissa and Julie and I discuss the ending of the novel, and if you’d like to hear that conversation, I moved that part of the recording to after the end credits of today’s episode at the 37:50 mark.

JA: I loved the tree book and all that it represented for Cora. How much time did you spend researching trees for the story, or has that always been an interest of yours?

CA: What are you working on now?

CA: One of the goals of this podcast is to help educators and librarians inspire kids to read more and connect them with amazing books.  Did you have a special teacher or librarian in your life who helped you grow into a reader?

JA: What types of books did you love when you were Cora’s age?

CA: What are you reading now?


Melissa’s website –

Melissa on Twitter and Instagram

Julie’s website –

Julie on Twitter

New York City Tree Census –

Books & Authors We Chatted About:


Swiss Family Robinson (Johann D. Wyss)

The Tillerman Series (Cynthia Voight)

Lizard Music (Daniel Pinkwater)

Her Body and Other Parties (Carmen Maria Machado)

The Cardboard Kingdom (Chad Sell)

Bob (Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead)

Hurricane Child (Kheryn Callender)


Alright, that wraps up our show this week!

If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Books Between is a proud member of the Education Podcast Network. This network EPN_badgefeatures podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at And, if you are liking the show, please leave us some love on iTunes or Stitcher so others can discover us as well.

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!


Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

Corrina is the host of Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love.

Find her on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.



MG at Heart Book Club’s July Pick

The Middle Grade at Heart book club’s pick for July is . . .


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Can you still have a home if you don’t have a house? In the spirit of The Truth About Jellyfish and Fish in a Tree comes a stunning debut about a family struggling to find something lasting when everything feels so fleeting.

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.

Just Under the Clouds will take root in your heart and blossom long after you’ve turned the last page.

“[R]ich and evocative . . . . A moving book about an all-too-common childhood experience, which is fairly uncommon in children’s literature.” — Booklist

“Troubling, affecting, and ultimately uplifting, from a promising debut novelist.” — Kirkus Reviews

“[A] thought provoking debut about the meaning of home and the importance of family.” — Horn Book Magazine

The newsletter will go out Monday, July 30. The Twitter chat will be Tuesday, August 7.

Happy reading!

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.



MG at Heart Book Club’s 2018 Book Picks

February: SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS by Jack Cheng

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Amazon   Indiebound


March: THE VANDERBEEKERS OF 141ST STREET by Karina Yan Glaser

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Amazon   Indiebound


April: THE PARKER INHERITANCE by Varian Johnson

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Amazon   Indiebound


May: EVERY SHINY THING by Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen

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Amazon   Indiebound


June: THE MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER by Diane Magras

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Amazon   Indiebound


July: JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS by Melissa Sarno

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Amazon   Indiebound



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Amazon     Indiebound


September: THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT by Mae Respicio

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Amazon     Indiebound


October: THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC by Amanda Rawson Hill

(cover not yet revealed)

Amazon     Indiebound


November: THE HOTEL BETWEEN by Sean Easley

(cover not yet revealed)

(not yet available for pre-order)