Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

I really liked Lynda Mullaly Hunt's debut middle grade novel One of the Murphys about a young girl in foster care, so I was really looking forward to reading her second novel, Fish in a Tree and it didn't disappoint.

Sixth-grader Ally Nickerson has a secret that she has so far managed to hide from her mom and her teachers - she can't read.  Luckily for Ally, her dad is in the military and so her family has had to move seven times, which means new schools and new distractions so that no one has discovered her secret.  Now, though, her teacher is going on maternity leave which means a new teacher will be taking over.

But Ally ends up in the principal's office (again) when she give the teacher her card and she hasn't a clue why.  She had so carefully picked out a card she thought the teacher would like, not realizing it was a sympathy card instead of a baby card.

Believing she can't read because she is stupid, Ally has always stayed by herself, withdrawing into her "mind movies," or drawing in her Sketchbook of Impossible Things and trying to remain invisible and doing her best to avoid the class bully Shay and her sidekick Jessica.

Luckily, though, Ally has a wonderful, caring older brother which is a genius at solving car problems and who provides her with some relief from the stress of her schooldays.

But it is the new teacher who really turns things around for Ally.  Mr. Daniels, is young, enthusiastic, energetic, interested and creative.  First thing he does is change everyone seat in class.  Suddenly, Ally finds herself sitting next to a girl named Keisha.  After an awkward start, Keisha and Ally become friends and both girls befriend Albert, who occasionally comes to school with bruises and who has an amazing mind for remembering factual information.

Mr. Daniels has also been taking special education classes at night and seems to have a real interest in Ally.  Soon, he is teaching her how to play chess at the end of each school day, which proves to be a real opportunity for him to talk to her about her work.  And he thinks she's a pretty smart girl, which is why he has her pulled out of class one day to be tested.   The test results show exactly what Mr. Daniels suspected - that Ally is dyslexic - and for the first time in her school life, she is finally able to feel optimistic that she can actually learn to read.

With two good friends, an understanding teacher and new found hope, Ally is feeling happier that she ever been, even though she has a rough learning road ahead of her and a few surprises, too.

Fish in a Tree is a book I can really relate to, since I wasn't diagnosed as being dyslexic until I was 18 years old and I know exactly how Ally felt for most of her school life.  Lynda Mullaly Hunt has really captured the anguish and despair that a young person feels when they can't learn the way everyone else does.  And the clever distractions they can come up with as a cover.

Though not without a few flaws, Ally's story proves to be both compelling and inspiring.  And I admit, there were times I found reading her story to be so emotionally charged that it was almost painful.  I thought that Ally, Keisha and Albert are all well-fleshed out characters, with their own personalities.   On the other hand, I thought most of the other characters that surround Ally are pretty much stock types, but then again, middle school does have its share of bullys and nerds, and eager teachers.  I was particularly disheartened, though, by the character of Mrs. Hall, who handled Ally by sending her repeatedly to the principal, rather than taking a closer look at what Ally was doing.  And the principals attitude wasn't much better.  Ally's mistake in giving a sympathy card to her pregnant teacher is seen as bad behavior, not as an indication of a larger problem.  As a teacher, these things really bothered me.  I suspect and hope that Mr. Daniels is going to make a lot of teachers look differently at some of the students in the classes.

Overall, this is a book that I would recommend to all middle school kids.  Hunt doesn't back away from difficult subjects that have not clear cut happy end in sight, instead ending on just a hopeful note.  This was true in One of the Murphys and is true for Fish in a Tree.  I can't wait to see what she is going to do next.

Penguin offers an Educator's Guide to both of Lynda Mullaly Hunt's books HERE
This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

What's it like to be dyslexic?  Stand in from of an audience and read the following, and it will give you a good sense of Ally's life before Mr. Daniels figured things out:

We pegin our qrib eq a faziliar blace, a poqy like yours enq zine.
Iq conqains a hunqraq qrillion calls qheq work qogaqhys py qasign.
Enq wiqhin each one of qhese zany calls, each one qheq hes QNA,
Qhe QNA coqe is axecqly qhe saze, a zess-broquceq rasuze.
So qhe coqe in each call is iqanqical, a razarkaple puq veliq claiz.
Qhis zeans qheq qhe calls are nearly alike, puq noq axecqly qhe saze.
Qake, for insqence, qhe calls of qhe inqasqines; qheq qhey're viqal is cysqainly blain.
Now qhink apouq qhe way you woulq qhink if qhose calls wyse qhe calls in your prain.

You can find out what this passage really says HERE

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is a weekly event hosted by Shannon Messenger at Book Ramblings, and Plenty of Shenanigans


  1. Thanks for the insightful review. Can't wait to read this one as I often have the chance to work with dyslexic kids. I also loved One for the Murpheys so that makes this even more appealing.

    1. Thanks, Greg, this was a book I really looked forward to reading and seeing how the dyslexia was handled. What a great job Hunt did, just as she did in One of the Murphys.

  2. It looks like a promising book, along with a wonderful cover image. Thanks for introducing this book.

    1. Hi Ambika, I like the cover, too. It makes you curious to see what it means in regard to the story. Hope you get a chance to read Fish in a Tree.

  3. I really enjoyed Fish in a Tree as well. Mrs. Hall and the principal bothered me as well, many touching moments to reflect on. Wonderful review! I particularly liked your passage on what's it like to be dyslexic.

    1. Thanks, Brenda. I think a lot of people don't understand dyslexia and while it manifests differently in different people, I thought this would provide a sense of the difficulty kis with dyslexia have. Glad to hear you enjoyed the book.

  4. I loved both Lynda Mullaly Hunt's books. This is a terrific review. I appreciated your example at the end. Great stuff. Thanks for this post.

    1. Thanks, Rosi, I loved both of her books as well. And as I said, I can't wait to see what's next.

  5. This sounds really good! I'm glad to see more books coming about about kids with dyslexia. I'll be definitely checking this one out!

    1. I hope you do get a chance to read it, Jenni. And yes, there aren't many books about dyslexia so I happy this is such a good one - something both teachers and students should read.

  6. Hello Alex, I love the sound of this one. I’m also dyslexic and spent a great deal of time at secondary school in the head masters study. I struggled with English and Maths but went to great lengths to hide it. Being excluded from class for being disruptive was so much better than being ‘found out’. I went to college in my forties determined to prove something to myself. It was difficult, but I enjoyed the work and when one of the teachers asked how I felt I was getting on I confessed all! The college then sent me to a dyslexia centre where I was assessed as severely dyslexic. This was just a few months before my fiftieth birthday, I’ve always wondered how different thing might have been had the problem been recognised earlier. I’m so glad there is more help available now

    1. I suspect you and I would have many similiar stories of getting through school. I was only sent to the principal's office once when I failed sewing of all things. There rest of the time I was pretty much persona non grata to my teachers.

      I've also often wondered what life with be like has the problem been found earlier. Maybe I wouldn't have hated school so much.

      Thanks so much for sharing your story with us. I think it helps take the stigma out of being dyslexic when accomplished people tell others about their struggles and successes. It's one of the reasons I like Sally Gardner's so much. I know what she has gone through and yet writes such great books.

      And ironically, we are also both in the business of books in one way or the other.


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