Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Fish in a Tree - Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Summary:  Everybody is smart in different ways.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.

Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people.  Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions.  She's tired of being called "slow" and "loser," but she's afraid to ask for help; after all, she thinks, how can you cure dumb?

However, Ally's newest teacher sees the bright, creative kid beneath the troublemaker and helps to shine a light on her gifts.  Meanwhile, Ally gets to know tell-it-like-it-is Keisha and science-and facts-obsessed Albert, who also break the mold.  The three stand together against others who are not so kind.

As the outsiders begin to fit in, surprising things begin to happen in Ally's classroom that show her there's a lot more to her -- and to everyone -- than a label, and that great minds don't always think alike.

The author of the beloved One for the Murphys gives readers an emotionally charged, uplifting novel that will speak to anyone who's ever thought there was something wrong with them because they didn't fit in.  (Summary from book flap - Image from

My Review:  Fish in a Tree begins with this stirring dedication:

For teachers...who see the child before the student, 
who reminds us that we all have 
special gifts to offer the world, 
who foster the importance of standing out 
rather than fitting in.

And for kids...
who find their grit to conquer life's challenges -- 
no matter what their challenges may be.  

You are heroes.  
This book is for you.

I mean, you guys!?  How could I not fall head over heels?  Y'all I have so much to say, but if you are pressed for time I'm just going to cut to the chase -- Fish in a Tree is glorious.  If you liked Wonder, Counting by 7s, Mockingbird, Out of My Mind, or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, you should put this book on the top of your TBR pile immediately.  Just trust me.

Ally Nickerson is smart and talented in many ways, but she has always struggled with reading; the letters swim around, words don't make sense, and she always ends up with a blinding headache.  Ally has changed schools a lot and always managed to hide her inability to read from her teachers by pretending to be a troublemaker, rather than (as she sees it) a dumb loser.  When her regular teacher goes on maternity leave, Ally's new teacher, Mr. Daniels, isn't as easy to dupe.  I won't spoil what follows, but let me just say -- it will give you all the feels.   The dedication may have left me in deep like, but by page fifty-six I was in in love, and it just got better with every chapter.

Since Ally is the narrator, it wasn't hard to tell when she felt anxious, dumb, broken, and hopeless. It hurt my heart to watch her constantly conceal her struggles from everyone in her life and worry about others discovering her secret.  Thankfully, as the story continues, Ally is presented with new opportunities for growth and experiences moments of fierce loyalty and new friendships that made my heart surge.  I loved watching Ally's interactions with her bullies change as she begins to see her own worth and inch out of her shell.

Fish in a Tree may be about Ally, but it isn't just about Ally.  It's also about her brother Travis, a brilliant mechanic with big dreams who struggles with traditional education; Mr. Daniel's, a dedicated teacher doing his level best to reach his students; Albert, with his amazing intellect and mysterious bruises; Keisha, the new girl and aspiring chef who isn't afraid to stand up to anyone; Oliver, who talks, moves, and thinks a mile a minute; and so many others.  I loved the adorably quirky secondary character and longed to punch a few bullies in their tiny fictional faces (if for no other reason than they remind me of the a few non-fictional faces from my childhood).  We should all be so lucky as to have a teacher like Mr. Daniels and friends like Keisha and Albert -- people who can see beneath the surface, encourage, value differences, and build us up.

Ally's story hit close to home for me.  I have a daughter who struggles with her own vision issues, reading, and, to some extent, bullies.  She isn't dyslexic, but has a form of oculomotor dysfunction that makes tracking and focusing difficult, and which led to daily headaches when she was younger. Thankfully, we were able to identify her problem and begin a special vision therapy which helped strengthen her ability to track and focus. Right now we are working on re-building her confidence and self-esteem. Suffice it to say, this book is right up her alley and I will be reading it with her.

Fish in  Tree is relatable, well-written, unbelievably encouraging, and offers an interesting perspective that deserves to be acknowledged.  It was a moving personal read, but I also think it would be an ideal choice to read aloud, especially because reading it aloud might help it reach the ears of those who might need to hear it most -- kids like Ally (and my daughter) who might not pick up the book on their own.

As usual, with books I truly adore, I want to close this review by sharing a few of my favorite quotes from the book:
  • I'm only different to the people who see with the wrong eyes
  • [Albert] holds up his milk carton. "Suppose I say this is orange juice.  Doesn't change what it is inside."  "That's different," I say, thinking that the milk will feel like it's orange juice if it's told that enough. 
  • People act like the words "slow reader" tell them everything that's inside.  Like I'm a can of soup and they can just read the list of ingredients and know everything about me.  There's lots of stuff about the soup inside that they can't put on the label, like how it smells and tastes and makes you feel warm when you eat it.  There's got to be more to me than just a kid who can't read well. 
  • I think of words.  The power they have.  How they can be waved around like a wand -- sometimes for good, like how Mr. Daniels uses them.  How he makes kids like me and Oliver feel better about ourselves.  And how words can also be used for bad.  To hurt. My grandpa used to say to be careful with eggs and words, because neither can ever be fixed.
  • I guess maybe "I'm having trouble" is not the same as "I can't."
If you haven't already put Fish in a Tree on hold, on order, or on your 'wish list' I'm not sure how else to convince you.  It's great.  Get to it.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Verbal and physical bullying.  Sad, but not graphic.

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