A fish in a tree? The title will grab your attention and you will pick up the book. But when you start reading, it is Ally who will hold your attention. With every page of Ally, you will want another. This is a girl who doesn’t fit it, who is called “slow” and doesn’t have a lot of friends. She isn’t one of the cool kids or the smart kids. And she can’t read. She has made it quite a few years by faking…while her mother and her teachers haven’t figured out her secret. She never learned to read. But this year, and this teacher, are going to be quite a different experience for Ally.
Mr. Daniels is the new teacher who has some different ideas about the classroom. And he is the first teacher to realize that Ally can’t read. (As a teacher, this is a frustrating point in the book – Ally’s teachers do not realize her problem. Instead, we watch Mrs. Hall repeatedly send Ally to the principal’s office without ever investigating deeper into Ally’s problems in class. No one realized that Travis, Ally’s older brother, also “faked” his reading in school. Read more about Travis & Ally in Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s post “Who is Travis Nickerson?” at Nerdy Book Club.) When Mr. Daniels comes along, a young, new teacher working on his special education credential in the evenings, he not only realizes that Ally can’t read, he has some ideas about how to help her.
The teacher is not the only force of change in this book. Ally and her friends bring change to the classroom through their friendship and their willingness to defy the crowd. Ally, Keisha and Albert become friends, though unlikely friends at first, they soon bond. Keisha is a girl who doesn’t put up with nonsense, speaks her mind, creates unique bakery items in the kitchen. Albert is intelligent, quirky, and honest. They are individuals and celebrate each other through their friendship. Shay is the girl who dominates the classroom, has friends around her, but is heartless and cruel to those she decides are not worthy of her friendship. The teachers don’t seem to pick up on the subtleties of Shay’s true nature, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. But Ally and her friends manage, slowly but surely, to influence the class through harmony and friendship, a quiet and positive force.
There are multiple strands running through this book that will engage and interest young readers. While Ally has dyslexia and not all readers will understand her struggles with seeing the letters move on the page, many readers will identify with the idea of not fitting in and feeling invisible, whatever the reason. Albert and Keisha are two more characters who are unique, interesting, and surprising. Readers will empathize with these good-hearted characters. Adults (and teachers too!) will enjoy this uplifting and optimistic novel. Yes, change can happen! And yes, kids who struggle can learn to read!
Topics for Writing and Discussion
- Loneliness. When Mr. Daniels asks the class about the words lonely and alone, Ally surprises herself by raising her hand. She explains that “‘Well…alone is a way to be. It’s being by yourself with no one else around. And it can be good or bad. And it can be a choice. When my mom and brother are both working, I’m alone, but I don’t mind it.’ I swallow hard. Shift in my seat. ‘But being lonely is never a choice. It’s not about who is with you or not. You can feel lonely when you’re alone, but the worst kind of lonely is when you’re in a room full of people, but you’re still alone. Or you feel like you are, anyway.'” (pages 123-124) Why do you think Ally describes alone and lonely in this manner? How has she experienced loneliness? It is possible to feel lonely in a room full of people?
- Friendship. How do you see friendships at work in Ally’s classroom? Why do you think that Keisha, Albert and Ally become friends? What do they have in common? Are they good friends? What friendship moments come to mind? How does their friendship change the class?
- Bullying. People might describe Shay as a bully in the classroom. Do you think she is a bully? What characteristics does she have that lead you to this conclusion? What moments in the story show the reader Shay’s character? When Ally approaches Shay in the classroom, did you make a prediction about how Shay would respond? Do you think Shay was feeling lonely in a classroom full of kids? Why doesn’t Shay take the opportunity to be friends with Ally? Why does Ally say that it “felt like the right thing” to come over to Shay, even though Shay was mean to her again?
- Catalyst. When Jessica apologizes to Ally and tells her that she is a good artist, Albert calls Ally a “catalyst.” What does he mean by this? What is the definition of catalyst? How does Ally become a catalyst in her group of friends and her class? Are there other “catalysts” in this novel?
- “Mr. Daniels looks up at that bright blue sky and says, ‘Now, don’t be so hard on yourself, okay? You know, a wise person once said, ‘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 it’s stupid.'” (page 159)
- “And I think of words. The power they have. How they can be waved around like a wand – sometimes for good, like how Mr. Daniels uses them. How he makes kids like me and Oliver feel better about ourselves. And how words can 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 older I get, the more I realize how smart my grandpa was.” (page 184)
- “I realize that dealing with Shay every day is like playing chess. She is always looking for your weakness, always trying to get you flustered and force you into a mistake. Against her, you have to remember that the board is always changing and moving. Keep your eyes open. Be careful. Have a plan. Realize that you can only stay on the defensive for so long – eventually, you have to take a stand. But no matter what, don’t give up. Because, every once in a while, a pawn becomes a queen.” (pages 191-192)
- “‘I think you’re just invincible.’ And then he winks and begins taking the pieces off the board and putting them in the box. I am sad the game is over and I’m relieved that I trust him again. And isn’t it funny – I’ve gone from being invisible to invincible.” (page 192)
- “At first I’m surprised, but then I realize it wasn’t a mistake to come over, because it felt like the right thing. Shay’s the one who decided to act mean, but at least I tried. I have to admit though, I do feel sorry for her.” (page 252)
Dyslexia Resources & Books
Have you read Fish in a Tree? Other books on the subject of dyslexia and reading? Please share!