The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.
The Secret of Clouds by Alyson Richman brings to life the bond between a teacher and student. In the current environment, it is a reminder of how precious a life is even for a fleeting moment. It is a story of hope and the dreams of a young boy who readers will connect with immediately.
Richman noted, “The title came from my son saying to me after my grandmother died, that he wishes there would be a family cloud. I put a sentence in the book, “We have to hope every family has a family cloud that will unite everyone.” I tried to explain death to him. He wanted to know where she went, how is it she was here one day and gone the next. He looked up to me and said, ‘mommy, I just have to hope there is a family cloud.’ I thought that was so beautiful. All my novels have a message of being kind to one another as the characters become knitted together. In this book, light was brought into the household. Within a community people could leave a lasting fingerprint on each other.”
The book opens with Sasha and Katya living in the Ukraine. They move to America but discover their young son, Yuri, has a major heart defect caused by the exposure to nuclear radiation. Because of his condition he is not allowed to attend school with other students. Assigned as a home school English teacher, Maggie Topper needs to find a way to connect with Yuri. Realizing Yuri is passionate for baseball she uses it as a teaching tool, having him read the biography of Shoeless Joe. Throughout the book are tidbits of baseball history as well as comparisons between baseball and Yuri’s life.
Readers can only imagine how stressed any mother would be, not knowing if they would outlive their child. Richman noted, “I could not imagine. Yuri’s mom, Katya, desperately wanted to protect her child. Think how worrisome it is for a mother to think her child’s heart could stop beating and not to be able to see any signs. There was this powerful scene in the book where Yuri is sleeping in his crib and she is hovering over him to make sure his chest goes up/down. I interviewed people who had children with rare heart defects and they never wanted to leave their children for even a minute. Another scene has Maggie staying with Yuri so Katya can get some rest. As a mother, I kept thinking Yuri was my child.”
Although Richman is known for her historical novels, she ventured into the contemporary genre. But she makes sure to include the historical significance of the era by delving into such topics as the Chernobyl disaster, baseball, music, and a mention of the Holocaust. Trying to show Yuri that people always need hope, Maggie has him write a letter to his future eighteen-year-old self. She precedes it by explaining to him how children in the Terezin Concentration Camp wrote poetry and drawings even when starving and freezing. Maggie came to realize that “a teacher’s job is to make children feel safe, to make them believe their ability is boundless…to use their minds-and their imagination-in their darkest hour.” Yuri’s letter and the drawings/poetry of the Holocaust children sparked a creative dialogue where they were able to imagine the possibility of a better life.
This is a heartening tale of the influence a teacher has on a student, but also how a student can impact a teacher. Richman makes people think about the importance of life and how a child born can make such an impression on those adults around him, even for a short time.