Monday, September 19, 2016
Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: CLOUD AND WALLFISH by Anne Nesbet
What It's About:
Noah Keller has a pretty normal life, until one wild afternoon when his parents pick him up from school and head straight for the airport, telling him on the ride that his name isn’t really Noah and he didn’t really just turn eleven in March. And he can’t even ask them why — not because of his Astonishing Stutter, but because asking questions is against the newly instated rules. (Rule Number Two: Don’t talk about serious things indoors, because Rule Number One: They will always be listening).
As Noah—now "Jonah Brown"—and his parents head behind the Iron Curtain into East Berlin, the rules and secrets begin to pile up so quickly that he can hardly keep track of the questions bubbling up inside him: Who, exactly, is listening — and why? When did his mother become fluent in so many languages? And what really happened to the parents of his only friend, Cloud-Claudia, the lonely girl who lives downstairs?
"Noah knew something was up the moment he saw his mother that May afternoon in fifth grade. She swooped up in a car he didn't recognize--that was the first thing. And, secondly, his father was sitting in the other front seat, and in Noah's family, picking up kids at school was a one-parent activity."
Why I Loved It:
As the son of a diplomat, and having lived in more than half a dozen countries, I love stories set in different locations. And you can't get much more different than East Germany in the years before the Berlin War came crashing down.
I loved the sense of skulduggery in this novel, of the sense of something not being quite right when the family sets off to East Germany and Noah has to change his name. The reader suspects the parents are spies, but quite what they are doing, and how, remains veiled. Noah continually wonders how far down the rabbit hole he's fallen--and one feels for him in this new country where so much is different. But one thing that isn't different between the U.S. and the German Democratic Republic is the possibility of friendship, and he discovers the possibility of that with a girl in his apartment building, Claudia--whom he calls Cloud. But Claudia has some secrets of her own. The novel is a wonderful puzzle. (It is not an accident that Alice in Wonderland features so prominently in it. See Anne Nesbet's post at Project Mayhem last week for more insights on that.)
Noah is also a stutterer, and it's great to see how deftly Anne Nesbet portrays this without bogging down the novel's flow.
As mentioned, Anne is a member of my group blog, PROJECT MAYHEM, and I was lucky to have her answer some questions for me. Take it away, Anne!
1) Tell us how you got to spend time in East Germany. What was hard about
living there? What was surprising?
My first stay in East Germany was in the summer of 1987. I had been
studying in France, and I saw a notice pinned up on a wall about advanced
German language programs in the GDR (East Germany). I had lived in West
Germany and spent time in the Soviet Union and was thought it would surely
be interesting and a change of pace to study in the Communist Germany, the
German Democratic Republic--and indeed it was! I made friends there,
learned a lot of German, and realized I wanted to know more about East
German literature and culture.
So I changed my dissertation topic to incorporate Soviet and East German
literature and applied to return to the GDR on a scholarly research
exchange program in 1989. My husband and I had to get married so that he
could get a visa to come with me! We were in Russia in 1988, and then
arrived in January 1989 in East Berlin. We were given what seemed to us a
very luxurious apartment to live in--the very one my main character's
family is assigned. East Germany had more consumer goods than Russia at
that time, but the surveillance of the population was much more thorough.
The only hardship we suffered was a lack of green vegetables. We couldn't
go over the Wall into West Berlin for the first three months or so because
of a tiff between the GDR and the United States about multiple-entry
visas. We could leave East Germany whenever we wanted, of course, but they
wouldn't let us back in. So for the first part of our time in Berlin, we
lived entirely on the East German economy and ate only what the East
German markets had to offer. When the green peppers arrived from Cuba in
the spring, it felt like a miracle!
As for surprises--everything was surprising. This was a country we had
known so little about, in the West, that everything was illuminating.
There were so many creative, wonderful people living there, and trying to
make their lives interesting and fulfilling despite the limits set on
where they could travel, what they could study, etcetera. We also found
the political bureaucracy quite fascinating. We would go to political
meetings around local elections (which, naturally, did not ask you to vote
between different candidates, but just to approve the candidates the Party
was offering), and we were very impressed by the courage some young people
showed in asking questions, like, once, "I don't really see why you even
need us to vote!"--and also impressed by the ability the Party men had to
drone on and on and on after a question like that, skillfully putting the
whole audience back to sleep . . . .
2) Cloud and Wallfish is different from your other books. Have you been
mulling over this story for a while? Why did you decide to write it with
explanatory notes between chapters?
My first three novels (The Cabinet of Earths, A Box of Gargoyles, and The
Wrinkled Crown) were all fantasies, with a common theme of the tension
between science and magic--so Cloud and Wallfish, set in the unmagical
year 1989 in East Berlin, is a real departure from that pattern. I never
really stopped thinking about East Germany and about my experiences there
in 1989 (and then also in 1990), though; I just didn't realize until
recently that I could use my archive from that period as "world-building"
for a novel for children.
The structure of the novel is unusual, too, as you note: there is a
fictional story in the "chapters," and then each chapter is followed by a
"secret file," with more juicy information about the historical context of
the story I'm telling. Children in the United States aren't exposed much
to history of places outside the USA, nor do they hear all that much about
important, but relatively recent, periods like the Cold War, or the fall
of the Wall in 1989. And yet it is so vital for all of us to have our
curiosity about the wider world stimulated and encouraged! History is as
amazing and surprising as any Harry Potter story--it really is.
At the same time, I think it is really essential to respect (and to poke
at) another border, that between "fiction" and "nonfiction." In the last
paragraph of the Author's Note that accompanies Cloud and Wallfish, I lay
out some of my thoughts on why engaging critically with the
fiction/nonfiction divide is so important:
"In this book, the fictional parts--the story--are mostly to be found in
the regular chapters, and the nonfictional historical material in the
Secret Files at the end of each chapter. But of course there is a lot of
history in the fictional parts of the book, and of course every account of
history always has some fiction mixed up in it. When you read a nonfiction
book, or nonfiction parts of fictional books, you have to stay as alert as
any researcher (or spy). Truth and fiction are tangled together in
everything human beings do and in every story they tell. Whenever a book
claims to be telling the truth, it is wise (as Noah's mother says at one
point) to keep asking questions."
3)Pick out a favorite scene from the novel, and tell us why it speaks to you.
I have several favorite scenes. The most fun to write was the scary bit
where Noah is being interrogated by the East Germans. When you travel
across borders as much as I have in my life, you think all the time about
the offices that must be there, hidden away behind the scenes, the
"mirrors" that are really windows, the people whose job is to question
everything the poor traveler claims is true. It's a terrible experience
for Noah, but I really enjoyed the writing of it.
The scene where Claudia and Noah cement their friendship in hard times by
working on a jigsaw puzzle together--that interaction is very close to my
heart. I do believe that working on a project together, even a simple
project like a puzzle, can help people overcome various kinds of walls
that might otherwise separate them.
Also the scene with the cloud at the end--well, I can't say much about
that, since I guess it would be a spoiler--but anyway, that image was in
my head from the very beginning of this project.
4) Have you been back to East Germany since German Reunification? If so,
what changes did you see?
I've been back a number of times, and on each occasion I have been stunned
by the changes. In 1990 we went back to East Berlin during the period
before the two Germanies were officially reunited, but after the fall of
the Wall and of the East German government. I remember it as a time of
joyful anarchy: parties being held at all hours in the old ruined
buildings in the center of East Berlin. Then in the 2000's, I went back
again to Berlin, and the old neighborhoods our friends had lived in, where
there hadn't been many trees and where the air was soaked with
coal-smoke--those neighborhoods were now full of trees and children and
adventure playgrounds for those children and excellent, inexpensive ice
cream and sidewalk cafes! It was astonishing to see how quickly the city
had evolved. It was already hard to find traces of the Wall that had stood
so long between East and West.
When I went back most recently, the feeling of the city seemed again to
have changed. Prices and rents have been rising, and fewer East Germans
can afford to stay in the old neighborhoods. I am sure this city is going
to continue to change and change and change as the years go by, as all
vibrant cities do!
5)You've done a lot of traveling in your life. Are there any places you
haven't been to yet that are on your bucket list? What sights do you want
Oh, there are so many places I haven't been! Whole continents! I've never
been anywhere in Africa or in South America, for instance. I've never
visited Japan or India. I would love to see more of China. Closer to home,
I would like to go backpacking in the Rockies. I can never get enough of
6) You're a professor at UC Berkeley. How do you balance your teaching and
academic life with your writing of fiction?
"Balance" seems an optimistic term. There's a lot of careering (nice pun
here, actually!) this way and then that way, a lot of looking at the To Do
List and despairing. I am lucky to have very inspiring colleagues and
students, though, who keep me on my toes.
THANK YOU so much, Michael, for asking me these questions! I have really
enjoyed thinking about them.
About The Author (from Project Mayhem bio:)
Anne Nesbet reads while walking, which means she relies on echolocation (or chance) to avoid injury. She teaches film history by day and writes novels for middle-grade readers in stolen moments. (Sometimes she steals a whole week.) She plays viola, composes strange pieces of music, and is happiest above 10,000 feet. Her fantasies for middle-grade readers are THE CABINET OF EARTHS (HarperCollins 2012), A BOX OF GARGOYLES (HarperCollins 2013), and THE WRINKLED CROWN (HarperCollins 2015), and her first historical novel for kids, CLOUD & WALLFISH, came out in 2016 from Candlewick. She lives with her tolerant family and demanding dog in California. WEBSITE TWITTER FACEBOOK