‘The Secret of Clouds’ by Alyson Richman is the kind of novel that haunts you but in a beautiful kind of way. Richman essentially dares you with her exquisite words to not be grateful for what you have, as you dive into the world of a sick little boy whose heart condition prevents him from ever fully leading a normal life. Imagine not being able to leave the confines of your house because one little sniffle could result in a trip to the hospital. As the reader is drawn deeper into the world of this charming little boy, they quickly take note of the fact that Yuri does his best to be happy with the cards fate has dealt him, painfully aware of how heartbroken both of his parents are over his condition.
Katya, his mother, would do anything to reverse the hands of time to change her son’s destiny. Immigrants from Ukraine, she had come with her husband to America precisely to ensure that her future children would have the best of opportunities. The Kiev that they walked away from had been grim, chemical filled, and antisemetic. She couldn’t have predicted that the week of inhaling chemical laced air as a result of a factory accident would lead to her giving birth to a son with a grave heart condition. All she wants is for Yuri to be able to laugh outside with friends, play baseball, and attend school…..but this is constantly at war with her motherly instinct of preservation.
Enter Maggie Topper, the main narrator of this story, who is a sixth grade English teacher at the public school in the district where Yuri lives. She’s asked to serve as Yuri’s private language arts tutor and the bond these two form ends up being undeniably unbreakable. As a teacher myself, I kept thinking as I turned each page of the book that this was why I taught. To be able to positively influence the mindset of a young student is to feel success. Additionally, it’s the lessons we as teachers learn from our students that lead to us making incredible discoveries about ourselves. Richman weaves a tale of heartache and self discovery as she navigates between the outlook of adults vs the outlook of children. You come to remember, as an adult reader, that even a life laced with tragedy is easier to face when you possess the type of goodwill and innocence that only exists in the mind of a child. Richman gently chides us adults for losing that sentiment somewhere along the way and, through Yuri, urges us to consider finding a way to somehow resurrect that childhood naïveté. The world, as it turns out, could end up being a far more pleasant and tenable place