Book Review: “Fish In A Tree” by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Fish in a Tree: Mullaly Hunt, Lynda: 9780142426425: Amazon.com: Books

Book Details:

Year of Publication: 2015

Genre: Realistic Fiction (Middle Grade)

Format (How I Read It): Hardcover

Goodreads Synopsis:

“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 is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone—than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike.

Book Review

I guess maybe “I’m having trouble” is not the same as “I can’t.”

Themes: Words are powerful. Growth mindset. Neurodiversity. Vulnerability. Stand up for yourself. It’s okay to ask for help.

Character Development: I thought Ally experienced a lot of growth throughout the story, and I loved watching how she grew and learned to understand and accept herself! I think the lessons she learned are ones that all kids could benefit from (self-acceptance, asking for help, not giving up, etc.). I also enjoyed her friends in the story. They had strong personalities and were very different from each other and from Ally. That being said, part of why their personalities were so clear and strong was because they were pretty stereotypical. Especially her male friend, who was smart and logical and… basically like Spock? I think he was meant to be another representation of neurodiversity, but I felt like it could have been executed better. The mean girls and bullies were also pretty stereotypical. In addition to that, the interactions Ally has with the mean girls were often exaggerated and unrealistic. They are so blatantly mean and confrontational, when in reality, the mean interactions at this tween developmental stage would be more subtle and passive aggressive. They’re just as hurtful, but not nearly as dramatic.

Ally also has a male teacher for most of the story. And while I think it’s great to see male teachers represented positively in literature, I had some issues with his role in the story as well. A lot of the things he did were just not realistic, appropriate, or professional. There’s a scene in the book where he asks Ally to stay after school (I think they were playing chess? I can’t remember for sure, but they were in the classroom without any other adults or students present), and he asks Ally to continue meeting with him and not tell anyone about it (though he does get permission from her mom). This entire interaction made me so uncomfortable. He was meeting with her after school to help her with her dyslexia, and I think he just didn’t want other students thinking he was favoring her, but still. It made me uncomfortable to see an adult asking a child to spend time with them in secret, and have it be presented as a good thing! Kids need to know that this is normally a huge red flag. Beyond that, he did clearly favor Ally in class, and the class seemed tiny as far as I could tell (which isn’t an accurate representation of a public school experience). He’s basically presented as a superhero, but a lot of what he did was incredibly unprofessional (even if he had good intentions).

“Great minds don’t think alike.”

Plot/Pacing: The story moves at a leisurely pace, and nothing too exciting or suspenseful happens (which is fine!). There are lots of smaller conflicts to keep things interesting.

Writing Style: It’s very character-focused. The writing and dialogue is very pleasant and enjoyable to read!

“Bingeability”: Moderate.

Emotional Investment: Moderate.

Windows and Mirrors: Dyslexia. Neurodiversity. Bullying. Military family.

“My grandpa used to say to be careful with eggs and words, because neither can ever be fixed. The older I get, the more I realize how smart my grandpa was.”

Overall Thoughts: I shared my biggest issues above in the character development section, but overall I actually did enjoy reading this book. As far as the dynamics with the teacher go, I’ve read a couple books at this point where the students have had a female teacher who has to leave for some reason, and then a young, cool male teacher swoops in, does things differently, and saves the day. I haven’t really read anything where a female teacher is represented in a similar way (but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist!). Otherwise, though, I really liked the representation of dyslexia in this book. Ally is in sixth grade, and I read a lot of other reviews complaining about it being unrealistic that it took so long for anyone to notice and get it diagnosed. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s actually that unrealistic. Especially in districts with large class sizes, or with students like Ally who move around a lot. Another challenge is that dyslexia has to be diagnosed by a doctor (not a teacher) in order to receive resources and support, which puts a lot of responsibility on the family for completing this process.

I also liked how the book showed some of the behavioral effects of dyslexia. I read a memoir earlier this year describing the same thing, and it was really eye-opening! Having dyslexia can be a really frustrating and isolating experience (especially if it goes undetected by professionals). Kids feel like they’re stupid and can’t figure out why some things (like reading) are so easy for their classmates and so hard for them. They don’t know that their brains are working in a different way than many of their peers (and that that’s okay!). This can lead to acting out in class and other behaviors. They don’t want to feel embarrassed, and so they do what they need to do to hide or distract. It was something I hadn’t really thought about before, and I was glad this book included that.

It’s also a great story about being kind and rising above when others don’t treat you the way you deserve to be treated. Even with the issues I had with the book, I still really enjoyed it and found it to be really heartwarming!

Recommendation: I think this would be great as a beginning-of-the-year read-aloud. It would be a great conversation starter to talk about making friends and growth mindset (something we talk a lot about in the beginning of a school year!). It would also be a good one to go along with units about character traits or archetypes/stereotypes since the characters have such clear traits and fit into very clear categories (i.e. the nerd, the bully, etc.). This would also be a great one to read at home for the same reasons!

Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!

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