One of our recommended books is Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet


Slip behind the Iron Curtain into a world of smoke, secrets, and lies in this stunning novel where someone is always listening and nothing is as it seems.

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.

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Slip behind the Iron Curtain into a world of smoke, secrets, and lies in this stunning novel where someone is always listening and nothing is as it seems.

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? In an intricately plotted novel full of espionage and intrigue, friendship and family, Anne Nesbet cracks history wide open and gets right to the heart of what it feels like to be an outsider in a world that’s impossible to understand.

Read our interview with the author on the Reading Group Choices blog!

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  • Candlewick Press
  • Paperback
  • April 2018
  • 400 Pages
  • 1536201839

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About Anne Nesbet

Anne Nesbet is the author of the novels The Cabinet of Earths, A Box of Gargoyles, and The Wrinkled Crown. Her books have received starred reviews and have been selected for the Kids’ Indie Next List, Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best list, and the Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year list. An associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Anne Nesbet lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Author Website


California Book Award Gold Medal winner
Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year
NCIBA Book of the Year Award Winner for Middle Grade
ALA Notable Children’s Books

“In this atmospheric page-turner set just as the Iron Curtain begins to lift, Nesbet deftly ratchets up the tension, using a close third-person omniscient narration to keep readers experiencing one unnerving event after another, just as Noah does…This is edgy, dramatic, and emotionally rich historical fiction that provides a vivid look into an extraordinary moment in history.”Horn Book (starred review)

“Nesbet writes an interesting and nuanced narrative that weaves history, mystery, and friendship with enough action to keep readers engaged. A great choice for those looking for a thrilling historical fiction or coming-of-age tale.”School Library Journal

“Nesbet gives readers a glimpse into life behind the Iron Curtain…Noah’s friendship with his neighbor Claudia is genuinely touching, and some truly tense scenes unfold as secrets are revealed and readers witness events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.”Booklist

Discussion Questions

1. How would you react if your parents announced everything about your life—even your name and birthday—was going to change right now? Do you think Noah should have demanded more answers, even if it was against the rules?

2. Which rule do you think would be the hardest to follow? Why?

3. Cloud-Claudia says, “Names are like codes, yes? Like magic codes. They have everything that ever happened to you squeezed tightly inside them” (pages 151–152). Is she right? How important is your name to who you are?

4. Does Noah agree with Cloud-Claudia about names? Would his parents?

5. Should Noah trust his parents just because he knows they love him?

6. Is what Noah’s parents did wrong? Is it OK to lie to someone you love in order to protect them, or is it more important to always tell the truth?

7. Imagine you are on one side of the Berlin Wall and part of your family is on the other side. What events in your life would you most wish you could share with your relatives on the other side? What might you want to ask them about their lives?

8. The secret police in East Berlin are automatically distrustful of Noah’s family, and when he is in the police station they try to make Noah admit that his parents are spies. Why do some governments use fear as a tactic to control their citizens? Is it really possible to control what everyone in a country does, says, and thinks? Why do people in this story do things their government does not want them to do?

9. At a few points, Noah’s Astonishing Stutter makes it difficult for others to understand him, like when he attends the party or when the police are questioning him. But how is it sometimes an advantage?

10. Language is a very important part of this book. Noah and his family need to speak German once they are in East Berlin, and Noah learns a clue about his mother’s past when he finds out she speaks Hungarian. What languages would be useful for you to know, and why?

11. Is speaking a different language like putting on a disguise? If you speak more than one language, are you the same you, whatever language you are speaking?

12. Noah spends every day holding up his cloud sign at the end of the book. He does this for a long time before Cloud-Claudia finally sees it. How long do you think he might have kept trying, if no one told him to stop? How long would you wait if you were trying to reach a friend that way?

13. If you had to pick one image, like a cloud or a wallfish, to describe yourself, what would you pick, and why? Think of a close friend or family member. What might they choose for you?


Excerpt from Chapter 1

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.

There in the back was his raggedy brown duffel, the one with the duct tape hiding a rip, perched on top of a pile of suitcases. He had to sidle in carefully if he didn’t want to topple any bags.

There wasn’t even an extra inch left on that whole seat for his backpack— he just swung it around and balanced it on his knees.

“Um, hi,” he said to his parents. “What happened to our car? What’s all the luggage about?”

“Shut that door,” said his mother. “Rental car. We have to hurry. It’s a sudden adventure. And hand that backpack up to your father.”

The car pulled away from the curb so quickly that the tires let out a hint of a squeal (which was cool).

Noah’s father turned around and gave him a reassuring smile.

“You’re going to do just fine,” he said as he hauled Noah’s backpack into the front seat. (Do fine? thought Noah.) “Of course, we meant to give you a little more notice. What’ve you got in here, anyway?”

Apparently that wasn’t a question that could wait for an answer. Before Noah could go peep, his father had given the backpack’s searchlight-yellow zipper a tug, and everything inside tumbled out in a heap of pencils, erasers, and crumpled papers. Plus two books and a banana.

“Hey!” said Noah, leaning as far forward as the seat belt would allow. His mouth almost failed to make any sound at all, he was so surprised. His parents were tidy people, usually.

“Only what’s essential. That’s all we can take,” said his dad, while his hands went picking through the debris so speedily his fingers turned into an efficient blur. He had a trash bag at his feet, it turned out, and all the papers were going right in there. Then he turned back with a wink. “What do you think— is this banana essential?”

“What are you doing?” said Noah. He didn’t care about the banana. It was everything else that mattered. “Take where? Wait, don’t throw that out— that’s my math homework.”

“Not anymore!” said Noah’s mother. “We’re getting on a plane— can’t take any extra junk.”

“We’re getting on a plane?” said Noah. “Right now?”

“Yep!” said his mother. “It’s that trip we’ve been talking about taking. Did you think those language tapes were just for fun? Hey, come on now, German! It’s your superpower, remember? Der-die-das-die.”

She sang the last bit. It was true that they had been listening to language tapes at home. There was a German grammar book that came with the tapes, and they had made up songs for some of the charts. The only way Noah could get through those charts was by singing them. German has way too many consonants— and way too much grammar, his mother liked to say.

Actually, however, Noah sort of liked all that grammar. His brain was very good at patterns, and learning to understand a language is all about recognizing patterns. His mother was almost not kidding about it being Noah’s superpower.

As superpowers go, though, it was a more or less invisible one: Noah was a whole lot better at understanding than he was at speaking.

“But we can’t go anywhere now,” said Noah. “This isn’t vacation time. Vacations happen in the summer.”

Because it was supposed to be a vacation. That was the whole idea: they were going to go to Germany— on vacation— to go to the Black Forest, eat cake, poke at cuckoo clocks, and tour at least one castle.

“Plus anyway I have soccer tomorrow. I can’t miss soccer. And Zach’s birthday is Saturday!”

“Change of plans,” said his mother. “Sorry. Couldn’t be helped. And it turns out it’s going to be a different Germany. Not the usual Germany. The other one. We have a few hours for organizing and getting our stories straight, and then we fly.”

Flabbergasted. That was the word that filled Noah’s head, though he kept it safely inside. Flab-ber-gas-ted.

And for the birthday party, Zach’s mom was going to rent the first Indiana Jones movie on video. Indiana Jones! Noah opened his mouth, but before he could say one single useful, coherent thing, his father interrupted. Sometimes parents don’t notice when a kid has vital things to say. Sometimes they’re too busy sorting through that kid’s books, papers, and candy wrappers.

“Hey, look at this!” said Noah’s father. He had Noah’s current book in his hands— an old edition of Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass that used to be his mother’s. Noah had picked it off the shelf that very morning, because he always had to have something to read in his bag, just in case. This particular book looked battered but cheerful. It had lost its dust jacket years ago; rows of red-ink and black-ink rabbits trotted away on the cover in a diamond pattern.

Noah’s father was staring at those rabbits; he looked doubtful.

“What do you think, Lisa? This okay?”

“That’s not extra junk. That’s my book I’m reading,” said Noah, holding out his hand. He had only gotten through the first chapter or so in school today, but it was turning out to be a very weird story. Old-fashioned but weird. Noah liked it.

“No name written in it, yes? Then it’s all right, I’d say,” said his mother.

But as his father tossed the book back to Noah, it hit the side of the seat, and a card fell out of it, dislodged from all those pages where it must have been wedged in pretty tightly before.

“What’s that?” said Noah’s mother, and the car swerved a little to the right as she swung her head around to take a look.

“Don’t worry,” said Noah’s father. “Eyes on the road. I’ve got this. Noah—”

But Noah was staring at the square in his hand.

“A photograph!” he said. A tiny girl stared out at him, standing very straight and upright by the knees of a large, wide-smiling man in an armchair. “Hey! Who’s this kid? Who’s that man?”

“Oh dear!” said his mother, and she swerved so abruptly off the highway into a rest area that Noah had to hang on to the seat in front of him. “Oh dear!” she said again. “I shall be too late!”

And the car screeched to a halt. There wasn’t much to see at this rest stop. The kind of gravelly asphalt that just sits there dreaming of taking the skin off some poor kid’s knees, a few sorry trees, a building with restrooms in it, and a couple of picnic tables covered with bird poop and future splinters.

Noah’s hands were trembling.

“Too late for what?” he said.

“It’s a quote,” she said, and at that very moment Noah remembered where he had heard those words before: that’s what the White Rabbit says at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. Right as he leads Alice down the rabbit hole and into the world where everything’s weird.

That gave Noah the strangest feeling. What were his parents up to?

“Look,” said his mother cheerfully. “It’s all a surprise, I know, but the good part is, we’re going somewhere where almost nobody gets to go.”

“Think of it as an expedition,” said his dad. His smile was conspiratorial. “If someone invites you to the South Pole, what do you do? You say yes. Right? This is like that, only not the South Pole.”

Noah’s mother dismissed the South Pole with a wave.

“Back to facts,” she said. “It’s not going to be easy, maybe, Noah, but you can do it. Hand that photo over, though, please.”

Noah stretched his hand out, but slowly, giving his eyes time to see the picture first. That tiny girl— she looked familiar around the edges. She was dressed up in party clothes, with a tiara on her head and a wand in her hand, and her eyes were dark and sparkly, like she had just figured out all sorts of things other people couldn’t imagine. She was maybe four years old, that little girl, and it looked like she was noticing every detail of your clothing, your hair, the nervous twitches that meant you might be trying to get away with something.


Read our interview with Anne Nesbet on the Reading Group Choices blog!