Melissa Sarno is the YA Book Reviews Editor for Cleaver Magazine. As one of the preeminent voices in young adult and children’s literature, she has a keen eye for works-to-watch-for in this genre. Melissa’s first full-length work, Just Under the Clouds, is forthcoming in June.
This interview was completed through email.
Brendan McCourt: When did you join the Cleaver team?
Melissa Sarno: I joined the Cleaver team in May 2015 as the YA and Children’s Book Reviews Editor. But my first exposure to Cleaver was a year before that, when I had a flash fiction piece, Fall on Me, published in the magazine. It was one of the first pieces I’d ever had published and Karen is really great about bringing writers into the Cleaver community on social media so I felt like I was a part of a team in some way. I was really happy when she reached out to me about becoming an editor.
B: What has been your experience to date editing for Cleaver? How has this experience shaped or influenced your own journey as a writer and submitter?
M: My experience editing for Cleaver has been wonderful. I love working with writers to highlight lesser-known books from small and independent presses, and I love sharing books with readers who may not know about the amazing offerings in the young adult and children’s book space. My team of reviewers is thoughtful and smart, and I appreciate all of their insights. For book reviews, Cleaver also gives opportunities to young writers, helping them gain experience and bylines. I like working with these new writers, helping them to look more critically at the books they read. They bring a fresh perspective, since they are not far from the young adult experience themselves.
Since I started editing for Cleaver, I’ve also been working on my own craft; focusing on short pieces over novel-length works for young readers. In 2016 I sold two middle grade novels to Knopf Books for Young Readers, and the first Just Under the Clouds, will release this summer. I’m learning how to wear an “author” hat, in addition to the writer and editor hats I’ve been wearing over the years.
B: Do you have a piece of prose, poetry, or graphic narrative from Cleaver that is your favorite? If so, why?
M: For a short period of time I was running the Cleaver Instagram account so I began looking at more and more art in the magazine. I was really struck by A Presence In Wood by Miriam Carpenter. Her wooden feathers are just so delicate and beautiful and, when I see them, I am inspired. Since I edit book reviews, I also really love Leticia Urieta’s review of Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez. Leticia captured the intensity of the book and I could feel what it felt like for her to read it, which, in my opinion, makes for the best book reviews.
B: What advice can you pass on to our readers that you previously received, either as an editor or writer?
M: Another writer once me that I should protect any kind of early spark or energy I have while creating. She saw it as a flame that can easily be extinguished by others. I love this simple image. It’s one that stays with me when I’m in the early stages of writing. It’s a great reminder that the creative work is sacred and we shouldn’t let others in to trample on it too quickly.
B: You are the Cleaver Reviews Editor for Young Adult fiction and Children’s Writing, but what other genres or forms of narrative do you enjoy?
M: While I do read a lot of children’s and YA literature, I love adult literary fiction and some memoir. I’ll pick up a collection of short stories but I prefer the novel over any other form.
B: You mentioned your forthcoming novel Just Under the Clouds. Could you describe a little bit what the book is about? Also, how has that process been for you, both the writing and the publishing?
M: Just Under the Clouds is a novel for middle grade readers about Cora, a 12 year old girl living in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn with her mother and sister. When their room at the shelter is ransacked, the family moves in with her mother’s old friend and Cora discovers “the tree of heaven,” a tree that can grow in even the worst conditions. It’s a story about a girl searching for the true meaning of home
When I think of the process of writing anything, I think of what a difficult experience the blank page is. It’s like wading through fog for a really long time and eventually making it out the other side. I don’t know if will ever NOT be that way for me. But there is a lot of joy in getting to the other side. And once I’ve written I enjoy the process of shaping and revising it into something great. In terms of publishing, I had a long, windy road to publication and now I’m grateful that I have a small circle of people who believe in me and my work. The book is slowly making its way into the world and I’m excited to see where it all leads.
B: You mainly write for children and young adults, but your work tackles adult themes, such as homelessness, disability, and identity. Why is it important to you that your work touch on larger social issues? How do accomplish the task of embedding these issues into your work without making the literature too complex for your target audience?
M: Just Under the Clouds started with a strong voice, a Brooklyn setting, and an idea to write about trees and plants growing and thriving in the city. So it wasn’t my intention to take on a big social issue until I realized that this was a book about a girl searching for permanence, stability, and a place to call home. In general, however, as a reader and writer, I gravitate toward difficult topics in children’s books because children are experiencing difficult things in their lives. If we, as writers, can reflect that and allow readers to see themselves in a story or let them learn about another experience outside of their own, I think that is vitally important.
Children are intelligent readers and I trust them to handle complexity in language, structure, and content. I also hope to write from a place of authenticity, so writing about a young person should be relatable to young people.
B: In your opinion, what is the goal (if there is one) of literature? How do you see your own work fitting into that goal?
M: Oh wow, that’s a big question. I don’t know if it’s a goal so much as it is an effect, but sharing our own stories and reading other stories make us more empathetic individuals. That’s a proven fact. And I think we can move forward in life as individuals and as a society if we practice empathy. We all exist in narrow experiences and spaces, so I think literature can widen that space. I’d like to think my work is small part of that expansion.
Brendan McCourt is a student of English and Philosophy at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. A Philadelphia native, Brendan primarily writes in short forms, including poetry, flash fiction, and prose poetry. Brendan is also the editor-in-chief for his university’s undergraduate literary magazine Quiddity.
Feature photo of Melissa Sarno taken by and courtesy of KatieBurnett