Fish In A Tree is about a young girl whose struggles to read make her the target of the class bully. The arrival of a new teacher changes the course of her life and makes her a catalyst for change in her friends lives too.
Ally Nickerson spends most of her time getting into trouble at school. She's been to seven schools in seven years. Whenever she tries her best, Ally is told she's too messy or she doesn't try hard enough. In her current school, she's frequently sent to see the principal, Mrs. Silver. When her teacher, Mrs. Hall asks her to write a page about herself, Ally refuses to do the assignment. At a class baby shower for Mrs. Hall, Ally's card causes a huge commotion. The card she's given Mrs. Hall is a sympathy card, the type you'd give to someone who had a death in the family. Once again she finds herself struggling to explain her strange behaviour and is sent to see the principal.
Her behaviour leads Ally to be frequently bullied by her classmates Shay and Jessica. They also enjoy picking on Albert, a large boy whom Ally describes as a "walking Google page". However one girl, Keisha Almond stands up for Ally and often confronts Shay and Jessica in class about being mean.
Ally's mother works as a waitress at A.C. Petersen Farms to help support their family. Her father has been deployed overseas and Ally misses him intensely. She also misses her grandpa who passed away recently and used to read Alice In Wonderland to her. Ally identifies with the story because she sees it as a "book about living in a world where nothing makes sense..."
Ally's secret which she wants to hide from every one is that she finds it difficult to read. Words are like insects marching across the page. She can't quite grasp them long enough to know what they are. In second grade didn't recognize her own name and in third grade the teacher told her mother that she "might just be slow, that my mom shouldn't expect too much of me." Her grandpa's gift of Alice in Wonderland is like a "gift that's locked in a glass box". What Ally does love however, is to draw. In her sketchbook which she calls the "Sketchbook of Impossible Things", Ally draws anything that pops into her head, like "...a snowman that works in a furnace factory."
Mrs. Hall is replaced by Mr. Daniels, a young man who is very different than either Mrs. Hall or Mrs. Silver. For one thing he doesn't tolerate Shay's meanness in class and he works to make all the kids feel like they belong. When Ally doesn't complete the assignment about herself, Mr. Daniels discovers she likes math and she loves to draw. He tells her that if there are problems in class, the two of them will deal with it together and she won't be sent to the office. At "show and tell" Ally listens to her classmates show and describe things that tell the class about themselves. She almost doesn't show what she brought - a 1943 steel penny that her soldier father gave her. Mr. Daniels thinks its cool Ally showed the class her coin.
The next day Mr. Daniels gives everyone a note book to write in and tells them they can write about anything and that it will never be graded, which makes Ally very relieved. Their first entry is to be about themselves. Ally decides to test Mr. Daniels to see if he means what he said by only drawing a black cube. Her drawing leads Mr. Daniels to ask her why she chose to draw this. She tells him the black box represents a dark room and her desire to be invisible.
Mr. Daniels changes the class seating placing Ally beside Keisha. The night of the holiday concert, the music teacher, Mrs. Muldoon hands out beautiful bouquets of red flowers donated by Jessica's father. When Keisha leans in to smell hers, some of the buds fall off. Annoyed, Mrs. Muldoon takes Keisha's bouquet away from her. Upset at what has happened to Keisha, Ally rips her bouquet apart to share with her friend and finds herself also without a bouquet for the concert. This leads to the beginning of their friendship.
Mr. Daniels assigns his class to write about a short story he read to them in class. Ally tries to enlist her brother, Travis to help her, but he tells her is not good with writing. He states that "my brain is like gears with no grease" and "It's like asking a blind man to drive a bus." After spending most of the night writing her paper, Ally turns in the assignment to Mr. Daniels. He praises her for turning in her homework and for writing more than she usually does.
Keisha invites Ally to sit with her a lunch. Soon after this Ally decides to invite Albert to sit with her and Keisha. Albert reveals to the girls that his family is not very well off, which explains why he gets a free lunch everyday. The three friends are ridiculed by Shay who calls them the "Island of Misfit Toys", a reference that Albert doesn't agree with.
They day they are to write stories Ally panics and decides to come to class with her arm in a sling. Mr. Daniels is puzzled about her injury and questions her. After three days he tells Ally that he will have the nurse call her mother if she shows up with her arm in a sling the next day. This prompts Ally to remove the sling. When Keisha is asked to rewrite one of her stories, Ally realizes that Mr. Daniels has never asked this of her. So she decides to write something so terrible that he will have to ask her to redo it. However, Mr. Daniels doesn't seem concerned.
Ally invites her two friends for ice cream at her mother's restaurant one day after school. Albert tells them that Mr. Daniels questioned him about his bruises. Ally too has noticed the bruises on Albert's arms. Albert tells Ally and Keisha that he is confronted everyday by a group of boys that he meets on his way home. He doesn't want to fight, despite Keisha's encouragement to stand up to them, because he believes he will be blamed for the violence.
Ally continues to struggle in Mr. Daniels class but she also has moments of success. When they are asked to write a poem, Ally's poem wins the Fantastico Poetry Award. The prize is a certificate and a coupon for ice cream. However, Ally is upset because she believes she only won the award because Mr. Daniel's feels sorry for her.
The situation comes to a head when the class goes to the Noah Webster House. Shay makes fun of Ally when the guide shows the class a white dunce's hat and explains how it was used in the late 1800's. Ally runs out of the house and is found a short time later by Mr. Daniels. He tells her that she is very smart and that he believes the reason she struggles so much with reading is because she has dyslexia. Mr. Daniels lets Ally know that he wants to help her and that he was going to call her mother and ask if she could take some special tests. Even though Ally is scared she agrees to take the tests. Little does she know just how much her life will change and how she will become an inspiration to her some of her classmates to change how they view themselves.
Lynda Mullaly Hunt has crafted a beautifully written piece of fiction that is guaranteed to capture the interest of young and adult readers alike. That's because Ally Nickerson is a heroine everyone can identify with and everyone is rooting for. Ally begins the novel believing that her situation is hopeless. School is a painful endeavour that she has to endure every single day. Not only is learning almost impossible but the ridicule from her classmates is constant. In Mrs. Hall's class Ally knows "The rest of the class is getting tired of me again. Chairs slide. Loud sighs. Maybe they think I can't hear their words: Freak. Dumb. Loser." She endures the constant bullying from Shay who taunts her. "The world gets dumber every time Ally Nickerson speaks." Even when Mrs. Silver begs her to let her help her, Ally refuses.
But things begin to change with the arrival of Mr. Daniels and it is his presence that will set Ally on a remarkable journey of self-discovery. Mr. Daniels is an exceptional teacher who recognizes that each student is different. For example, Oliver, who tends to just talk and talk,is reined in by Mr. Daniels with a secret code between the two of them - he tugs on his earlobe whenever its time for Oliver to stop talking. He quickly tells Shay that her ridicule of Ally "isn't cool. We don't do that in here." And he calls his class Fantasticos. This is very much in contrast to Mrs. Hall who tended to ignore Shay's taunts of Ally. Where Mr. Daniels recognizes Ally's artistic abilities, to Mrs. Hall her drawings were "doodling". Mr. Daniels encourages Ally to submit whatever she can while Mrs. Hall allowed Ally to "slide". Mr. Daniels wants to work out their problems in the classroom; Mrs. Hall preferred to send Ally to the principal's office.
Mr. Daniels demonstrates that he considers each of the students unique in Ally's eyes by the way that he treats Oliver. Instead of telling him every time "that he's doing something wrong in front of everyone", Mr. Daniels has an "ear-pulling signal" with Oliver. Ally recognizes that Mr. Daniels not only cares about the students but that he "actually seems to like that we're different." He doesn't seem to want perfect, silent children.
The turning point for Ally is in Chapter 14 Boxed In and Boxed Out because Ally experiences what it's like to do something really well in front of her classmates. Mr. Daniels gives Ally's class boxes sealed shut and asks them to try to determine what is in each box. The exercise is designed to test the students' power of observation and to "think outside the box" - that is to think creatively. Ally quickly proves that she "can do this thing as well as everyone else, and it is the best. The best feeling ever." This marks the first time Ally has been able to succeed in the classroom and the first time she has fit in with a group of her peers.
Ally's problem in school is eventually revealed. Ally indicates that she gets headaches whenever she tries to read and that the letters seem to move. When the principal, Mrs. Silver asks her to read a poster on the wall, Ally notes "The letters on the poster look like black beetles marching across the wall. I could probably figure most of them out, but I'd need a lot of time." She describes reading as "...like when I drop something and my fingers scramble to catch it and just when I think I've got it, I don't." Her mind works differently than others in that she seems to have a "mind movie" in her head. Mr. Daniels tells her what he believes her problem is and that is going to try to help her.
One of the major themes in this novel is that of identity. Ally's inability to read has made her believe that she doesn't fit in and that she is hopeless. Albert too experiences a crisis of identity; his size and intelligence make his different. When Ally, Keisha and Albert are collectively labelled "The Island of Misfit Toys" this is a reference to the island of toys who have been made incorrectly in the Christmas classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Albert argues that "Something is not a misfit simply because it has a different name."
Ally applies this to how she feels about herself.
"And then I think that if someone hung a sign on me that said anything, having that sign there wouldn't make it so. But people have been calling me "slow" forever. Right in front of me as if I'm too dumb to know what they're talking about.
People act like the words "slow reader" tell them everything that's inside me. 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."
This is the first time Ally begins to think of herself as someone other than a person who can't read. This new reality is a struggle for Ally. When she realizes that Mr. Daniels doesn't critique her work in the same way as her classmates she remembers "how good it felt to do something right. To fit in." Now that she's felt that she wants to experience it again. First her fear of writing overcomes her and she puts her arm in a sling to avoid the assignment. When that doesn't work she knows she has to make a choice. "So now I'm stuck. I don't know who to be; the one who admits that I can't do it, or the pretender." Ally's fear makes her choose once again to be the pretender. But with Mr. Daniels' help Ally faces up to what she can't do, eventually even admitting she can't read to her friends. Once she stops pretending, and gets the help she needs, Ally's life begins to really change. At the end of the novel, when Mrs. Silver reads the poster in the office to her, Ally recognizes the truth it holds.
"Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is ask for help." C. Connors
Other characters also struggle with their identity, especially Albert. When Ally tells her friends that she has dyslexia she confides that she is worried she will grow up to be a "nobody". Albert and Keisha encourage her to "Be yourself. Be who you are." but Albert admits "I know what kind of grown-up I want to be. But I don't know who I am now."
Another theme touched on in the novel is the power of words. Albert acknowledges that "There are always people ready to tell you who you are, like a nerd or a jerk or a wimp." This leads Ally to think about the power words have.
"And I think of words. The power they have. How they can be waved around like a wand -- sometimes for good, like Mr. Daniels uses them. How he makes kids like me and Oliver feel better about ourselves. And words can be 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."
The novel takes its title from the popular quote, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." This quote is often inaccurately attributed to Albert Einstein but there's no proof that he ever said or wrote this. In the novel when Mr. Daniels is attempting to convince Ally that he can help her and that she is very smart he paraphrases the above quote, "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 its stupid."
Ally is remarkable heroine full of grit and determination. Mr. Daniels points out Ally's courage to her when he tells her, "Coming to school every day, knowing what you're in for. Knowing school will be hard. And that other kids are going to razz you. And you still come every day and decide that you're going to try again." That grit leads to a powerful transformation from believing she is hopeless and incapable of learning to believing that she has a life filled with possibilities.
Fish In A Tree is a wonderful novel that will help middle school children understand better learning disabilities, how some people learn differently and how they can be helped to learn. Filled with believable characters,several of whom experience profound transformations in the novel, Fish In A Tree concludes with a powerful message of hope.This is an outstanding novel and highly recommended.
Fish In A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
New York: Nancy Paulsen Books 2015