“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.”
I wish there was a way for me to make this book a required reading for all teachers, parents, and school personnel. While “Fish in a Tree” is no doubt a book to read for pleasure, it is also a great tool that will help cultivate a sense of empathy and understanding when it comes to struggling learners. On many occasions, I had to pause and reflect on my own experiences in teaching and learning. I took away so much from this book, and I hope other readers will, too.
Though she’s made it to middle school, Ally can barely read and write. She wants to, desperately, but the letters won’t stay in one place, making it impossible for her to decipher the words. When confronted with a reading or writing assignment, Ally pulls one of many tricks from her bag to get out of the situation. From drawing on desks to fleeing the room, she’s tried it all. Ally’s misbehavior makes her a constant presence in the principal’s office.
“If trying to read helped, I’d be a genius.” -Ally Nickerson
By using her tricks, Ally is able to keep her struggles a secret. Her classmates and teachers have labeled her dumb, stupid, and incapable for so long, that Ally has resorted to believing them. These are labels that she can’t remove. So she withdraws into her imagination, a place where she finds fuel for her art. Here she can escape the cruel words of Shay and her other classmates, but only temporarily.
Ally’s final trip to the principal’s office resorts in a drastic change. Ally is being moved to a new classroom, where she’ll have a new teacher named Mr. Daniels. Ally can only see this as another opportunity to have more labels stuck to her, and another teacher who will consider her a lost cause.
But being in Mr. Daniels’ room isn’t quite what Ally expected. Right away Mr. Daniels tries to make a personal connection with his new student. When he discovers Ally’s strengths in math and art, he encourages her to use those talents to demonstrate her learning. Mr. Daniels does something that no other teacher has done before: he expects more of Ally.
Being successful in school is new to Ally. Never has she been praised or had a teacher take an interest in her. This little taste of achievement makes her hunger for more. She gives more of herself than she ever has before. Ally even makes new friends! With Keisha and Albert by her side, school is finally a place where Ally can shine like the star she really is.
When Mr. Daniels looks deeper into Ally’s struggles with reading, he learns that she has dyslexia. He reassures Ally that dyslexia simply means her brain works in a different way. Brainiacs like Einstein and Thomas Edison were both suspected of being dyslexic, which means that “great minds don’t think alike”! With this new mantra, Ally is ready to set the world on fire.
“I believe that the things that we put numbers on are not necessarily the things that count the most. You can’t measure the stuff that makes us human.” -Mr. Daniels
With help from Mr. Daniels after school, Ally learns how to use her other senses for reading and spelling. Although this work is challenging and tiring, she takes it on with determination and pride. Armed with her new found ability to read and write, her new friends, and self-confidence, Ally goes from shining star to shooting star.
I loved each character in “Fish in a Tree”. Lynda brings them to life and makes the reader care for and root for Ally, Keisha, Albert, and the others. These friends are brought to life by Lynda’s thorough descriptions of their thoughts, feelings, and actions. They truly feel like authentic students that any teacher is likely to be able to identify in their own classrooms. Growing so attached to these lovable and relatable characters make it hard to get through this book with dry eyes!
If I could, I would put this book into the hands of all teachers, parents, and students. “Fish in a Tree” will make for a fantastic and gripping read aloud, one the will spark thoughtful dialogue between listeners of all ages. I foresee this book becoming a modern classic, because it has such an important story to tell.
Title: “Fish in a Tree”
Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Young Readers Group)
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My recommended age range: 4th and up (including grown-ups!)