In Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullally Hunt, Ally Nickerson tries to hide her inability to read through ridiculous comments and actions in class. Her secret becomes more difficult to hide when a substitute teacher tries to look past Ally’s antics. As Ally’s confidence grows, she befriends two unique friends that show her that different does not mean the same thing as bad or wrong.
When I read the description for Fish in a Tree, I couldn’t contain my excitement. As a fourth grade special education teacher, I was excited to read a book that featured a character with a learning disability. Even though learning disabilities, like Allie’s dyslexia in this book, can be common among elementary school students, I haven’t read many books that feature a student with a learning disability as the main character. While there were aspects of this book that I believe could be improved, overall, it has a good message for younger readers.
I think the strongest aspect of this book is the main character, Ally. The author did a great job of portraying a student with a learning disability and how some students with learning disabilities will sometimes create outlandish diversions to distract from their learning challenges. Ally, along with her friends, are are likable and relatable characters for younger readers.
Another aspect of this book that I enjoyed was the overall message in this book. Similar to another middle grade book, Wonder, this book explains that all people have differences, but that’s okay. While some people may try to pull people down for their differences, they cannot stand against a group of people fighting for what is right. This is such a powerful message for younger readers, so it always makes me smile when this theme appears in a middle grade book.
On the other hand, there several issues I had with this book. I felt like this book sometimes over-relied on quotes or stereotypes. For example, this book is named Fish in a Tree after the famous Albert Einstein quote. Additionally, there are other famous quotes or proverbial lines littered throughout the text. This wouldn’t bother me as much if they weren’t coming from the stereotypical smart, but socially awkward characters. For me, it just happened a little to frequently in the text.
As a special education teacher, I also noticed several inaccuracies with how the special education process was conveyed in this book. Ally’s substitute teacher, who not yet even obtained a special education license, tells Ally that she has dyslexia before any testing is done. Evaluating a student for special education is a very complicated process, and any teacher (whether they have a special education license or not) would know that 1.) You NEVER tell a parent or student they qualify for a disability category when you haven’t gone through the special education process 2.) It takes A LOT of testing and to determine if a student qualifies under a disability category, and 3.) The student’s teacher does not make the call what disability the student does or does not have. I’m not sure if they had a teacher read this book before it was published, but there were many glaring errors that cause the special education process not to be accurately represented.
Fish in a Tree wasn’t exactly what I expected, but it at least provides a positive message to younger readers. As I keep thinking about this book, however, I keep remembering many issues and inconsistencies with Ally’s edication which made the story less enjoyable for me personally. I give Fish in a Tree three out of five stars.