Last week was a great reading week, for I managed to squeeze in two middle grade books I had heard so much about.
Anne Nesbet’s Cloud and Wallfish was one of those hard to put down books. For one thing, it is set in the East Germany of 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is about to come crashing down, which is an unusual and little written about time period in YA novels. It is a time period rife with spies, double agents, and double speak – the reader is always on the edge of his seat wondering who is really who, and whether there is anyone at all worthy of trust (including one’s parents). Here’s the jacket copy from the publisher’s website:
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.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.
Cloud and Wallfish is a thoughtful, complicated story, because living behind the Iron Curtain was a complicated affair: you could trust no one, not even your closest family. Noah’s persistent search for answers, and Claudia’s need to believe in hope make for compelling reading; their parallel journeys take them to unexpected places, and leave the reader with important questions about what is happening in our country today as we sort through our own morass of “alternative facts” and “fake news”.
I so loved reading Melanie Conklin’s Counting Thyme, that I found myself deliberately slowing down my reading just so that I could prolong the pleasure of this story. Here’s the jacket copy:
When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.
After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.
Thyme is such an endearing character – she is all heart, which makes her deeply empathetic to her brother’s suffering inspite of the fact that his illness has upended and uprooted her entire young life. But, Thyme must also work through all the issues a kid her age faces: making friends, fitting in, sorting through the “popular kids” and the “losers”, having crushes, and being embarrassed about having a crush. Conklin is able to weave together the many threads of Thyme’s life to create a powerful story about the way a family must love each other and sacrifice for each other in difficult times. As much as I loved Thyme, I also grew to have much affection for the other characters in the book – from the neighbor who had an illustrious career as a stage hand, to Thyme’s overwhelmed but supportive parents. The only thing that made coming to the end of Counting Thyme bearable was the fact that I could pass it along to a student, and sit back to watch their pleasure in reading this marvelous book.
The other thing that has helped, of course, is that this book arrived the day I finished reading Counting Thyme…