Historical Fiction for Tweens: A Review of Cloud and Wallfish

Recent years have seen a resurgence of historical fiction for middle grade readers, many of the stories set outside the United States. Among them is Anne Nesbit’s Cloud and Wallfish, a mystery set at the end of the Cold War. One early spring day, 11-year-old Noah Keller’s parents pick him up at school and drive to the airport, along the way making him dump his backpack and all his homework. They tell him his new name is Jonah, he is six months younger than he really is, and the family is moving to East Berlin for the rest of the year so his mother can study speech therapy in East German schools (Noah has a stutter) and his father can write a novel. Their arrival is not a welcoming one, and after an encounter with a pair of bullying brothers, Noah/Jonah learns that authorities will not permit him to attend school. Isolated, he meets Claudia, another lonely child his age whose parents were supposedly killed in a car crash while on vacation in Hungary. But Noah/Jonah notices mysterious signs that they may still be alive. Claudia’s grandmother, a low-level employee of the state security services, is keeping a truth from her, but if Noah/Jonah gives his new friend hope through the coded messages he sends, he may be risking all their lives.

Nesbet, who lived in Berlin at the end of the Cold War and witnessed the tremendous changes of 1989, captures the grimness of the East German capital, the suspicions and lies that maintained a cruel authoritarian regime, and the physical and emotional costs of friendship. She narrates the story in third person, with teacher-like asides at the end of each chapter that place the scenes in a broader context. Nesbet’s voice, though, is that of a favorite teacher who fascinates her students with exciting tales of world-changing events and children just like them who have a front-row seat. This is a gripping story of intrigue and danger, but it’s also a story of friendship strong enough to survive a society built on fear, obedience, and betrayal.

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