Margin Notes

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet


I have been meaning to read Cloud and Wallfish ever since I heard Jill book talk it to middle school classes.  So, when I opened up my book relay package and saw my next read was this one, I couldn’t wait to dive in and I was not disappointed!

This may be a book written for 8-14-year-olds, but wow, did it ever pull me into the story, and truth be told, I am not a big fan of historical fiction. Or maybe I am and just didn’t know it because I was fascinated by the setting: Berlin in 1998.

We meet our main character, Noah, when he is still living a pretty typical life for an 11-year-old in the US. He goes to school, plays soccer, and looks forward to his friends’ birthday parties. He does have the “Incredible Stutter” but still… a pretty typical life. However, that life comes to an abrupt end on a random afternoon in 1989 when Noah’s parents pick him up in a car he has never seen before, begin to discard anything that could reveal his identity, and are acting in a way that is so bizarre it’s almost scary. And then we learn why. Noah and his parents are moving to East Berlin so that his mother can work on her thesis and for some reason, this is going to require both a change in birthdate and a change of name. Noah is now Jonah. And in case you were wondering, suspicious feelings about the parents begin here…and continue for a long time.

Nesbet’s attention to detail (the food available, the television programming, the smell of the coal), transports readers to the world of East Berlin where suspicion and surveillance reign at the same time that revolution is in the air. We witness a friendship build between Noah/Jonah and his downstairs neighbour, Claudia, whose parents have died in a car accident. We come to understand the tragedy of the Berlin Wall. We learn what it is like to be ruled by fear. I think we learn so much because Nesbitt herself lived in Berlin in 1989 and the newspapers, books, personal journals, notes, and pictures she kept all informed her writing.

Interspersed with the fictional story are “Secret File” boxes that provide historical context and help to explain the complexity of Berlin in 1989 in an interesting and intriguing way.  The boxes can also serve as a mentor text for students to demonstrate how fiction and nonfiction can work together.

Another idea to share with your students during writer’s workshop is this interesting note from the author:

“But of course there is a lot of history in the fictional parts of the book, and every account of history always has some fiction mixed up with it. When you read a nonfiction book, or nonfiction parts of fictional books, you have to stay alert as any researcher (or spy). Truth and fiction are tangled together in everything human beings do and in every story they tell.”

This is definitely a title I would recommend for any classroom library. In fact, as I was reading this book, I kept thinking about students who would love it, and when you read it, I have no doubt you will do the same.

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