Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt will (and has in many advance reviews) be compared to RJ Palacio's Wonder for her portrayal of an outsider on the edges of mainstream education, an increasingly popular theme in middle grade literature. Palacio's main character Auggie, who struggles with a physical deformity, shares narrative duties with a few other characters, but his voice is unforgettable and endearing. Wonder is also an amazing opportunity for readers to experience the thoughts and feelings of someone who is judged by his appearances, his intelligence often overlooked. And in this way, Fish in a Tree is a fantastic glimpse into what it is like for narrator Ally Nickerson, an undiagnosed dyslexic, to have her other intelligences and talents overlooked or diminished.
With a father in the military, Ally has moved a lot in her short life - seven school in seven years to be exact. Ally's her dad is stationed overseas, her mom works full time and her grandfather, also her best friend, has recently died. On top of that, Ally spends a lot of time in the principal's office and is running out of excuses for why she isn't getting her school work done. But, when Ally looks at the page, the "brightness of the dark letters on the white pages" gives her a headache and she ends up scribbling in frustration, making up excuses for why her work isn't getting done. Ally is already being ostracized and called "dumb" by the mean girls at school and her deepening sadness at her constant humiliation, from teachers, the principal and peers, seems like it might engulf her at times. However, Ally is able to escape through her amazing drawing skills and the magically creative movies that she sees in her head as well as her inventive ways of thinking about things, including her observation that gives the book its title, "If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it's stupid."
The arrival of Mr. Daniels changes everything for Ally, though. Mr. Daniels is less interested in fitting a square peg into a round hole and his lessons are innovative, engaging and excitingly non-conventional, allowing Ally to exhibit aspects of her intelligence. At the same time Ally begins to feel comfortable with Mr. Daniels, she begins a friendship with two other marginalized kids, Keisha and Albert. Hunt layers in interesting details beyond great lessons, like Keisha's cupcake company with a special twist - she has found a way to bake words into the center of the cupcakes - and Albert's scientific practicality, love of Star Trek (and an definite Mr. Spock type clipped way of speaking) and unflappability in the face of mean girls. Midway through Fish in a Tree a diagnosis is made and Ally begins to feel a bit less hopeless, especially when Mr. Daniels begins special tutoring for her after school. There is an especially poignant scene near the end of the book where Ally finds herself in Principal Silver's office once again, this time to deliver a note naming her student of the month for "hard work and good attitude." Before she delivers the note, Ally stares again at a poster she was once asked to read and couldn't - "Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is ask for help."
As an adult reader, I had to willingly suspend my disbelief that a child could make it to sixth grade - even with moving schools every year - without any kind of intervention and assessment on the part of her educators. That said, my husband who has taught high school for over 20 years has one or two students every year who cannot read so I know this can happen. While I loved the lessons that Hunt invented for Mr. Daniels to teach - especially the one where he introduced students to all sorts of great minds and high achievers who are also dyslexic, I wish that there had been more extensive descriptions of what it was like for Ally when she saw the words on the page or tried to write, although Hunt did a great job with Ally's excuses. While Ally is a richly drawn character, I found her classmates to be a bit two-dimensional and stereotypical at times, but I have no doubt that young readers will embrace Fish in a Tree the way they have other books about overcoming adversity.
Also by Lynda Mullaly Hunt:
Source: Review Copy