Where Do You Stay?

Jerome is staying with his Aunt Geneva and her family, now that his mother has passed away. Aunt Geneva does her best to make Jerome feel welcome, but it just doesn't feel like home. He misses his mother, he misses his piano, and his cousins make it clear they're not happy about the new living arrangements. Then Jerome meets Mr. Willie, who lives in a ramshackle carriage house nearby. Mr. Willie isn't like other people in Jerome's life: he doesn't ask a lot of questions; he just listens. He played the piano as a boy, just like Jerome. Maybe Jerome can find a home again with Mr. Willie. But when the carriage house is slated for demolition, Mr. Willie disappears. Jerome wonders where his friend will stay, and whether he will ever find a place to call home in this Society of School Librarians International Honor Book.

Mr. Willie uses the shovel to pile the dirt into a neat mound. I keep chipping with the railroad spike. We're starting to see more of the white stone. It's rounded on top like a head, like a dead man's skull except it looks to me like there's curls on the head, and dead people don't have hair. Sometimes living people don't either, like Mama before she passed. Aunt Melinda gave her a wig to wear but I said I don't like that wig, it doesn't look like you with that wig on, and Mama said A bald head scares people, Jerome, and I said Not me, the wig scares me.
Author perspective

When I was a child, there was an older man who walked up and down our street doing odd jobs.  In return for sweeping the sidewalk or cleaning a garage, he asked for sandwiches.  He sometimes told us stories of his youth and then took a nap under an oak tree.  Eventually the neighborhood kids realized that he was sleeping in the abandoned carriage house across the street.  This man became Mr. Willie in Where Do You Stay?.  As in so many of my stories, the characters and events are collaged together from people and events in my life. 


From the author of Where the Steps Were (2008) comes this story of loss and healing through friendship, family and music. After his mother’s brief illness and death from cancer, Jerome Mason, 11, is taken in by her sister’s family. Their inner-city neighborhood is located across Cincinnati from Jerome’s old home, and Aunt Geneva has sold the piano—central to Jerome’s life with Mama and that he misses desperately—to help pay for his upbringing. Rootless and lost, Jerome first resists Aunt Geneva’s caring gestures and efforts to integrate him into her family. He finds his cousins Damon, 15, mean and Monte, 10, a needy nuisance. Only Mr. Willie, the elderly man who “stays” in the carriage house of a nearby derelict mansion and does odd jobs, reaches Jerome’s heart. Like Mama and Jerome, he plays the piano; as a child he took lessons at the mansion. Perhaps the piano is still there, but before they can find out, Mr. Willie disappears and the house is sold. In spare, pared-down language that makes masterful use of elision, Jerome’s voice convinces and moves readers without falling into sentimentality. While the rather abrupt ending leaves unanswered questions, especially about Damon and Mr. Willie, Jerome himself makes a fully realized, deeply sympathetic protagonist. (Fiction. 8-12)

Publisher's Weekly

Eleven-year-old Jerome narrates his feelings of displacement and loss following his single mother's long illness and death, as well as his subsequent move into his cousins' house. In conversations that read like prose poems, he reveals his conflicted feelings toward his aunt, who plans to adopt him; the cousins who both resent and desire his presence; and his new residence, which does not feel like home because it has no piano. Painful memories of his mother's decline and the economic stressors that accompany her death confuse Jerome, while a connection with Mr. Willie, a neighborhood fixture who sleeps in a carriage house beside an empty mansion and survives by performing odd jobs, provides a grounding touchstone. By encouraging Jerome to garden and fix up abandoned buildings, Mr. Willie, also a musician, helps keep alive Jerome's hoe that music will return to his life. In short chapters of lyrical prose, Cheng (Only One Year) provides a moving tribute to a multigenerational community's ability to sustain and recreate itself in times of change through resilience, hard work, and a commitment to beauty and kindness. Ages 8-12. (Apr).


After his mother’s death, 11-year-old Jerome moves across town to live with his aunt, Miss Geneva, and her sons: younger, clingy Monte and older, angry Damon. Escaping the newness and tension with his relatives, Jerome takes refuge with elderly Mr. Willie, who lives in an abandoned carriage house behind an empty mansion down the block. Jerome misses the piano he had to leave behind at his old house, and as he helps Mr. Willie with odd jobs around the crumbling estate, he finds in his new friend a fellow music lover and a kind listener who gives him space to grieve. As in Where the Steps Were (2008), Cheng writes about the people and places of her Ohio childhood in a quiet, poetic story that resonates with authentic voices, here belonging mostly to African American characters. In eloquent, accessible language filled with the interior thoughts Jerome wishes he could say out loud, Cheng captures a child’s uneven passage from the impossible shock of losing his mother to his gradual reentry into life without her. Gillian Engberg

Book type: 
Middle grade novel
Front Street/Boyds Mills Press
Publication date: 
Jan 2011
Interest level: 
Ohioana Book Award Winner, Oct 2011