This book came recommended to me by my good friend and colleague Mrs. M., who told me that it would make me cry, but that it would be worth it. I have lots of thoughts about it!
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2015
Fifth-grader Ally Nickerson is taunted and friendless at school. All of the kids, including herself, think that she’s stupid. She’s very good, though, at hiding that she can’t read, and getting in trouble to avoid assignments she can’t do. So when she accidentally gives her pregnant teacher a sympathy card instead of a baby card, all the adult in her life assume that she’s suddenly and inexplicably deliberately trying to hurt her teacher. Her mother, while well-meaning, is working overtime to make ends meet while Ally’s father is deployed overseas. She’s not around to see how hard Ally works at those messy, half-done assignments, so she, too, thinks that Ally would be fine if she just applied herself.
Things change when long-term sub Mr. Daniels comes in to cover for Ally’s regular teacher’s maternity leave. He very quickly identifies her very typical coping techniques for what they are, and starts helping her after school. Chess lessons show her that she’s not so stupid after all, and the testing and tutoring he gives her identifies her as dyslexic. (This is not a surprise to anyone with a passing familiarity with the signs of dyslexia.) At the same time, Ally makes her first friends in class, new girl Keisha and bullied geek boy Albert. As Ally starts to make progress with the whole reading thing, her brilliant but illiterate mechanic older brother wonders if maybe Mr. Daniels could help him, too. Mr. Daniels also incorporates teaching methods in class that highlight non-reading intelligence styles, so that Ally’s bullying classmates also start to see that she’s just smart in a different way.
I have very strong feelings about dyslexia in kids, being the mother of a dyslexic myself. This is heart-breaking, tear-inducing and very, very frustrating for about the first half of the book. Fifth grade is so very late for dyslexia to go undiagnosed! I had a really hard time buying that even teachers who hadn’t recognized dyslexia wouldn’t assume that a student hadn’t been able to read the presumably swirly cursive on a sympathy card. Also, this story, like Blackbird Fly, show well-meaning but clueless female teaching staff and another brilliant male teacher who sees in a matter of days what the women didn’t pick up on in five years. (It was somewhat heartening to read at the end that Mr. Daniels was modeled directly after the male teacher who first picked up on the author’s dyslexia as a child.)
On the plus side, the author does a great job of describing the reality of life for someone with undiagnosed dyslexia, showing how the inability to read affects every aspect of life. Ally is a very sympathetic character, and I really wanted her to succeed. Her friends and her brother were also well-rounded characters that I enjoyed spending time with. Hopefully, the bright, happy ending will make up for the painful beginning for kids – if so, this would be an enjoyable book both for dyslexics needing inspiration (I hope it’s available on audio for them!) and for other kids, who can learn more about dyslexia while enjoying a classic outcast-finds-a-place story. It isn’t painfully educational, just painful emotionally – but I have seen many young readers less bothered by this than me. Also, kudos to Ms. Hunt for including Patricia Polacco in a list of inspirational dyslexics in history!
I feel compelled to close this with a PSA: parents and teachers, know the signs of dyslexia! They start to show up in the preschool years, and the earlier dyslexia is caught, the easier it is to keep kids on track with school. I’m going to be hopeful that this story, based on the author’s own experiences, would be different with the greater awareness of learning disabilities that we have today.