Infusing middle-grade fiction with the dark and twisty tropes of the spy novel might sound like a counterintuitive notion at first, but Anne Nesbet’s wonderful Cloud and Wallfish (2016) delivers the best of both of those worlds. Briskly paced, with smooth, accessible prose and likable young characters, it’s a great, informative read for kids that also satisfies as a historical espionage puzzler, immersively depicting the end of the communist era in East Germany.
Noah Keller is smart young kid with an astonishing stutter and a photographic memory, and he’s about to go on an remarkable journey. In 1989, his parents take him out of school, change his identity, and bring them with him to East Berlin. Evidently his mother is behind the Iron Curtain to work on a dissertation, while his father’s along for the ride writing a novel. But as Noah acclimates to his new life behind the Iron Curtain as “Jonah,” he senses that his peculiar parents aren’t entirely what they seem…and neither is anything else in this bleak, paranoid country. Even more mystery is afoot when he meets the clever girl from the downstairs apartment, Claudia, with whom he becomes fast friends — much to the consternation of a very suspicious East German government.
Persuasively conjuring its era, Cloud and Wallfish is a bracing, entertaining read that seamlessly integrates classic spy tropes into a fun, educational middle-grade read. The common denominator, of course, is pretending: a confident voice manages to walk the line between the wide-eyed, make-believe fantasy of childhood play and the serious, high-stakes play-acting of secret agents in a hostile environment. The resulting tale is successful for readers of all ages, I should think, thanks to its likable protagonist, masterful historical world-building, and the endearing, loyal friendship at the story’s core. This book is a joy.