It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers and Sheila at BookJourney
Among many unexpected and wonderful moments at NCTE, was happening upon my very own copy of this book:
I read it on the way back from NCTE, completely engrossed in the story as Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and a good part of New Jersey flew by. I had a feeling this would be the case, as I had had a similar experience with Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s previous book, One For The Murphys. Lynda writes with a heart that knows children well; she knows what wounds, what heals, what sustains, and what grieves a child. And she creates characters and worlds which ring true, and speak the truth. Here’s the back cover copy:
The author of the beloved One for the Murphys gives readers an emotionally-charged, uplifting novel that will speak to anyone who’s ever thought there was something wrong with them because they didn’t fit in.
“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.
What spoke to me about Fish in a Tree (which should be required reading for all parents and teachers) is that it is such a finely drawn portrait of what it is like to be a child for whom school has become a place of defeat. For Ally, each and every school day is another attempt to cross a reading and writing minefield. The way in which this is described struck me as so painfully accurate – this must be how our children suffer and struggle when learning difficulties get in the way.
Here, for example, is a passage from a scene early in the book. Ally has chosen a lovely card with cheerful flowers as a send off to her teacher who is leaving to have a baby. Had Ally been able to read the card, she would have known that it was a sympathy card. But words squiggle and move for Ally, so she had focused just on those lovely flowers. Needless to say, this lands her in the principal’s office. When Mrs. Silver asks her to reflect on the message on a poster there, Ally is stumped, once again. Then:
“She waves me out and, as I stand, I look at that poster again. I wish I knew what it was that I should learn, because I know that I should know a lot more than I do.
She sighs as she leaves her office and I know she’s tired of me.
Even I’m tired of me.”
Had Ally been able to do so, this is what she would have read on the poster:
“Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is ask for help.” C. Connors
Mr. Daniels is the teacher we all hope to be – the one who takes the time to notice small signs and red flags. The one who commits himself to figuring out Ally’s disability without diminishing her brave spirit. He is her cheerleader, but he does so in an such an empowering way that Ally comes to recognize all that she can do in spite of her dyslexia. Don’t we want to help our kids to make Ally’s learning journey one that travels the distance between “invisible to invincible”? To learn that ” “I’m having trouble” is not the same as “I can’t.””?
There is a parallel narrative of bullying and kindness within a classroom community that is woven into Ally’s story, which gives Fish in a Tree added depth and dimension. Through this, Ally learns what we all should aim to learn, so that we can live in a kinder world:
“…looking around the room, I remember thinking that my reading differences were like dragging a concrete block around every day and how I felt sorry for myself. Now I realize that everyone has their own blocks to drag around. And they all feel heavy.”
I loved Fish in a Tree so much, that I was sad when it came to an end. I wanted to stay with Ally and Mr. Daniels and that entire cast of character for a whole lot longer. This is a special, special book, and I feel lucky to be able to put it into the hands of my sixth graders.