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Sometimes a title just reaches out and grabs you. This is certainly true for Fish in a Tree, by Lynda M. Hunt (2015, Nancy Paulsen Books). I thought I was buying a book that dealt with bullying; and it certainly does, and oh, so much, much more! Ally Nickerson is in the sixth grade and she has a secret; a secret that even her mother doesn’t know; a secret that she has carefully hidden for years. Ally can’t read.
Ally is a whiz at math and has a great memory. She is a talented artist and an amazing problem solver — if the problem is not in written form. She has a wonderful sense of humor. Her wit, her intelligence, and her personality have all helped her mask her problem so far; but now, in sixth grade, it has become even more difficult to keep this secret. Ally’s self-esteem plummets and she is convinced that help is not possible. “Just try harder” is not the answer, as she points out when she says, “If trying to read helped, I’d be a genius.”
Hunt does a beautiful job of sharing the frustrations and, yes, the anger of 2e learners. She has Ally expressing many feelings and thoughts that 2e learners have shared with me. Because Ally’s intelligence is obvious to those around her, their expectations are high and they do not suspect, or even see, her deep feelings of frustration.
Hunt builds the story with the use of several symbols connected to Ally’s family life and primarily to her grandfather. Before his death, he was Ally’s major support and engaged in one of their favorite activities, reading Alice in Wonderland to Ally. Throughout the book she explains her frustrations in terms of Alice, both of whom are caught in a topsy-turvy world. Ally, like Alice, believes she lives in a world where nothing makes sense. Her sketchbook, which she named The Sketchbook of Impossible Things, keeps her connected as she draws the “mind movies” that help her cope with her difficult world.
Another means that Hunt uses to tie the plot together is giving Ally and her brother an interest in coins — an interest inherited from their grandfather, who would often ask, “Did you have a silver dollar day or a wooden nickel day?” Ally finds that she has way too many wooden nickel days. (By the way, several references to coins and coin collecting throughout the book may interest budding, young numistmatologists.) Hunt shows her skill and craftsmanship with her use of these and other techniques to provide continuity, transition, and interest as she cleverly develops the story of Ally’s struggle.
It takes Mr. Daniels, a long-term substitute teacher, to recognize in Ally what even she can’t see. After carefully watching her and asking a few quiet questions, Mr. Daniels suspects that Ally is dyslexic, which formal diagnosis substantiates. After winning Ally’s confidence, they set out together to conquer both reading and re-building Ally’s self-esteem. As Mr. Daniels points out: “Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it’s stupid.” Thus the title of the book — Ally thinks of herself as a fish in a tree. Finally, with Mr. Daniels’ help, she recognizes that “…I guess maybe ‘I’m having trouble’ is not the same as ‘I can’t.’”
The novel then rolls along. No! It surges forward like an avalanche down the mountain as it builds on several sub-themes: relationships, loneliness, family, bullying, friendships, and especially courage. Not least among these themes is the tribute paid to all sensitive, compassionate, informed teachers who go the extra mile to meet the needs of all students.
Fish in a Tree is another of those books that I’ve placed on my list of things that all teachers should read. It would be great for a class study novel, for use in bibliotherapy, and as a super read-aloud.
Students who share Ally’s situation will readily identify with her. Other students will build empathy towards classmates with learning challenges as well as discover shared feelings, even if they don’t have the challenge of dyslexia. I highly recommend this wonderful, touching novel of courage, hope, and success.
Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. At conferences, he often presents a session titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.