Title: Fish in a Tree
Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Pages: 276 pages
Publisher/Date: Nancy Paulsen Books, published by the Penguin Group LLC, a Penguin Radom House Company, c2015.
She shakes her head a bit as she speaks. “I just don’t get it. Why in the world would you give a pregnant woman a sympathy card?” […]
I stand tall, but everything inside shrinks. The thing is, I feel real bad. I mean, I feel terrible when the neighbor’s dog died, never mind if a baby had died. I just didn’t know it was a sad card like that. All I could see were beautiful yellow flowers. And all I could imagine was how happy I was going to make her.
But there a piles of reasons I can’t tell the absolute truth.
Not to her.
Not to anyone.
No matter how many times I have prayed and worked and hoped, reading for me is still like trying to make sense of a can of alphabet soup that’s been dumped on a plate. I just don’t know how other people do it. (9-10)
Sixth-grader Ally Nickerson has moved a lot because of her father’s military job. Her mother and older brother work long hours at their jobs, so she’s spent an enormous amount of time smartly playing dumb. She hasn’t told a single person how difficult it is for her to read, and gets out of doing assignments and reading by being funny, causing distractions, and sometimes just flat out refusing. When her teacher goes on maternity leave and they get a substitute for several months, he starts to see through her attempts to blend in with the rest of the class. Ally realizes she might not be the only one who stands out, and starts to make friends with no-nonsense Keisha and science-obsessed Albert. Her safely guarded secret is about to become not so secret, and Ally’s biggest fears may come true.
This book has sat on my night-stand for too long, especially considering how good it is. I meant to read just a few chapters and sat up for several hours into the night devouring it. I’ll warn you there will probably be more than a handful of quotes sprinkled throughout this longer review as I try to gather my thoughts.
A little librarian love here: I absolutely love Ally’s new teacher Mr. Daniels. The title of the book comes from the quote that if “you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.” When I wanted to be a teacher, this was the kind of teacher I wanted to be, recognizing the fish in a sea of monkeys and helping them learn to climb, or at least recognize their own abilities. He’s engaging, he’s spirited, he’s invested in his kids, aware of their needs, and willing to alter his teaching to accommodate those needs. He rules his classroom, and the kids know that he means business with very little introduction, which seems slightly unrealistic, but I’m okay with that. I wish Mullaly had included some of Mr. Daniels book recommendations for books, since his book talks are mentioned repeatedly and I used to do book talks to sixth grade students and would love to have received recommendations. His ideas of hands on learning are replicable and impressive, like boxes with mystery objects where in one he suspends an item inside the box in with tape and string in order to fool the students. He also presents an entire list of famous people who exhibited signs of dyslexia, even if not officially diagnosed at that time, including Alexander Graham Bell, George Washington, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Patricia Polacco, Whoopi Goldberg, Henry Winkler, Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, John Lennon, and Walt Disney. I included the whole list here for future reference.
Albert and Keisha are great contrasts to Ally, and each other, and they make an excellent trio of friends. Neither one of them allows the opinions or the teasing of others affect who they are, what they like, nor how they act. That attitude eventually starts to impact Ally the more she socializes with them. Keisha’s no-nonsense attitude is admirable, and her creativity is as subtle as the messages she bakes into her cupcakes. She is the only one to initially stand up for Ally and Albert and anyone who gets picked on by the classroom, but she is also aware that she herself is different. Albert’s comebacks against Shay and Jessica’s snark and just plain meanness are laughably geeky but also laughably good zingers.
“Actually, I don’t take my appearance lightly. I take you lightly” (62)
“You know, logically, if a person was to pull another down, it would mean that he or she is already below that person.” (71)
“You say purple is the color of royals. They only wore purple because it was the most difficult and expensive color to make. In medieval times, they needed to collect three thousand Murex brandaris snails to have enough slime to make one cloak. So, good for you. I prefer beige. What about you, Ally? Slime or beige?” (121)
Ally is a sympathetic character, and I love her philosophy of life and introspective way of thinking. She stands up for her big brother when her classmates are teasing her about him by distinguishing that “An older brother is older. A big brother looks out for you and smiles when you walk into a room.” (113) Her family does just that, and is supportive of her in every way they can, even if they don’t recognize her inability to read. She recognizes it though, and when others start to realize it she reacts just as any kid would who sees her inability to read as a problem that she can’t solve. There are some heartbreaking scenes when you want to reach through the pages of the book and hug her. She’s asked to define the difference between alone and lonely.
“Well . . . alone is a way to be. It’s being by yourself with no one else around. And it can be good or bad. And it can be a choice. When my mom and brother are both working, I’m alone, but I don’t mind it.” I swallow hard. Shift in my seat. “But being lonely is never a choice. It’s not about who is with you or not. You can feel lonely when you’re alone, but the worst kind of lonely is when you’re in a room full of people, but you’re still alone. Or you feel like you are, anyway.” (123-124)
But she struggles and puts in the hard work in order to triumph, and although I’m not sure most kids would, it serves as an excellent role model for kids who find themselves in the same situation. Give it to fans of Wonder, fans of Rules, fans of Out of My Mind, and buy multiple copies as I feel like this one is going to become an instant favorite with those readers. Hopefully not just with those readers, but with non-readers as well, who really need the message of hope and perseverance, and of making the impossible possible.