Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet is an intriguing historical novel set behind the Iron Curtain in 1989 East Berlin.
The most unusual things about Noah Keller are his astonishing stutter and his photographic memory. Other than that, he’s an ordinary American 5th grader. He goes to school, plays soccer, and celebrates his 11th birthday with a bowling party.
One day, though, his parents pick him up from school and announce that they’re going on an “urgent expedition” that will be “better than fun.” They’re going to spend six months in East Germany while his mom does research on special education. The only catch: Noah will have to be known as Jonah Brown, he’ll have to go back to being 10 years old, and he’ll have to remember lots of rules (such as Rule #1: “They will always be listening and often be watching. Don’t forget that!”).
Despite his parents’ excitement, Noah/Jonah finds East Germany lonely and boring until he meets Claudia, a girl who lives with her grandmother in the apartment downstairs. They make friends as they try to figure out what’s true in a world filled with secrets and lies.
Some of the things I liked best about this book are:
- The historical setting. Even though I was alive in 1989, I learned a lot from this book about life in East Germany and about some of the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Each chapter ends with a “Secret File” that provides necessary historical context for the events of the story. But these files are not dry textbook entries that you might be tempted to skip. Rather they’re engaging asides by a narrator with personality.
- The friendship between Claudia (Cloud) and Noah/Jonah (Wallfish). As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m fond of friendship stories, and this is a great one. I love the way that these two kids from different cultures initially bond over a jigsaw puzzle and come to trust each other.
- The relationship between Noah and his parents. Noah and his parents are close and loving, and yet, they have secrets from each other. Part of what’s interesting about this story is that the reader, like Noah, assumes that his parents are spies without finding out exactly what they’re doing in East Germany.
Although the main character is young (10 years old), I’d recommend this book mainly for older middle grade readers.