I recently listened to the middle-grade novel Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt on audio and thoroughly enjoyed it. This realistic, smart novel is all about not fitting in and learning that it’s OK not to be like everyone else.
Sixth-grade Ally is struggling. Her classmates all think she is dumb, and her teacher and principal think she is a troublemaker. The truth is that Ally has serious difficulty reading but has never told anyone. She is smart, so she’s been good at hiding her disability for years, though misunderstandings caused by it often get her into trouble. Ally has plenty of strengths, too – she is very good at math and problem solving and can visualize things in her mind in a way that makes her an excellent artist. But most people don’t notice those strengths hiding behind her problems.
Things change when Mr. Daniels becomes her new teacher, subbing for their regular teacher who went on maternity leave. Mr. Daniels is different from the other adults at Ally’s school. He doesn’t see her as a problem or a troublemaker. Instead, he seems to be the first teacher ever to understand what’s really going on with Ally. He does things differently in the classroom, too, assigning kids to work in teams so that Ally finds her first real friends, emphasizing problem-solving in a way that shows off Ally’s strengths, and coming up with fun, unique projects for the class. He also begins to work with Ally privately after school, to help her develop strategies to make reading easier.
I really enjoyed this insightful, sensitive story and its brave but misunderstood main character. Kathleen McInerney does a great job narrating the book as Ally, and the author portrays dyslexia in a realistic and enlightening way. I loved Ally right from the beginning and was so angry with the adults around her who failed to see that she had a learning disability. I couldn’t understand how they could all be so dense, but apparently, this is a very common way for kids with dyslexia to be treated.
Hunt herself has dyslexia and had a sixth grade teacher (on whom she based the wonderful Mr. Daniels) who finally recognized her disability and got her the help she needed. After finishing the book, I heard on the news that less than 30% of kids with reading disabilities are diagnosed and receiving school services to help them! I was astounded by this startling statistic and hope that books like Fish in a Tree will help to build awareness of this often-treatable problem.
Fish in a Tree is a novel about a very important subject, and I learned a lot from it. In addition to dyslexia, the novel also deals with bullying, friendship, and dealing with an absent parent (Ally’s father is on active duty in Afghanistan). However, it is also a very entertaining and enjoyable story about a young girl learning that it’s OK to be different and figuring out how she fits into her world.
For more information on diagnosing and treating dyslexia, see the website Learning Inside Out.