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Book Review: Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

My 9-year-old son recently asked me, “what’s the name of the genre of books that are about people who have had difficult lives?” He had just finished the book “Wish,” by Barbara O’Connor and was doing some self-reflection as far as what to read next. The writer nerd in me loved that he was making the connection between books like “Wish,” “Wonder,” etc., with some of the interesting biographies he’s read (like the Who Was series and the True Tales of Childhood series). The next book I’m going to suggest he read? “Fish in a Tree” by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. I don’t think there is a named genre as my son described it, but this book certainly fits his interest in this type of main character.

Intended Audience of Fish in a Tree

Middle Grade and Middle School (I’d suggest 4th-7th grade) and elementary and middle school teachers

This is another great book to consider reading WITH your child, especially for readers in this age group who struggle with novels (the main character has dyslexia and children who struggle to read will really relate to her).

I also love the idea of teachers reading this, either on their own or as a read-aloud to their class. A wonderful, understanding teacher that took the time to uncover the real reason this student was struggling made all the difference. It will remind teachers of the power they have to literally change the direction of their students’ lives, as well as their ability to create a classroom culture of acceptance and empowerment.

Summary of Fish in a Tree

This book centers around the relationship between Ally, a student with dyslexia, and Mr. Daniels, her caring and attentive teacher who quickly realizes that Ally is masking her learning challenges by misbehaving. It also addresses a wide range of timely topics that many students will relate to, like not fitting in, being bullied, personal loss and family instability (Ally’s grandfather has recently died, her father is deployed, and her mother works long hours as a waitress). Despite these heavy topics, Mullaly Hunt keeps it light enough for this age group through Ally’s whimsical imagination, which manifests itself in her journal full of doodles, which she calls the Sketchbook of Impossible Things.

What to Know Before You Read Fish in a Tree

I do worry that children who are experiencing similar struggles as Ally does (bullying, learning challenges, etc.) will feel daunted if they lack what Ally has in this book: a teacher who knows how to address her issues, combined with the development of real friendships with a few other “outcasts” in the class. It felt a little like when difficult challenges are fixed within the confines of a 30-minute TV sitcom. That said, for this age group, I think a positive outcome is important. I just worry that for those students who lack this type of teacher or compassionate classmates, they may feel more frustrated and lonely than they do hopeful.

Why You Should Read Fish in a Tree

This book sends a powerful message to students who struggle in the classroom (whether it is academically, socially, or emotionally) that with the right support and perhaps just the blessing of time, things can and will get better. I also found Ally and her budding friendships to be incredibly relatable characters that even children with less overwhelming situations will feel invested in and connected to. Mr. Daniels is now one of my literary heroes, as is Ally, and I think anyone who reads this will feel the same.

If you have a child who excels in school and naturally gets along well with others, but who often asks questions about classmates that have different styles of learning or unique needs, this is a great book to direct them to so that they can better understand and address their curiosity in an age-appropriate way. I love that this book treats Ally like the smart, amazingly talented child that she is.

After You Read Fish in a Tree

  • Start a journal of Impossible Things like Ally, whether it’s for doodles or quick notes or just fun ideas. I can envision my youngest child sketching out crazy Lego designs, while my oldest would probably write his own comics. This is Ally’s one source of comfort until Mr. Daniels enters her life, and I think many children could benefit from something similar. It allows kids a chance to explore what makes them special, especially if those talents don’t often present themselves in a traditional academic setting.
  • Embrace this opportunity to learn more about dyslexia. There are many resources online.
  • Consider supporting a program like United Through Reading, which records members of the military reading books to their children during a deployment, and then provides the families with the recording and the book for their children to have. I can only imagine how powerful something like this would have been for Ally’s family.

If You Like Fish in a Tree, Read These Books Next:

Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links.

Want to read other reviews of books we recommend? We have an entire page of book recommendations broken down by age range.


Parents as Reading Role Models: Eliminating Distractions and Building Stamina

This is the third and final installment of our series Parents as Reading Role Models (Part 1 and Part 2, if you are catching up). Let’s talk openly and honestly about all of the distractions in our lives and how they often prevent us from modeling good reading behaviors for our kids. Whether you’re the parent or caregiver of a newborn or a teenager, it’s so easy to become distracted by dings, vibrations, and alerts. We are very guilty of this ourselves. Flip on CNN and you’ll see 4 scrolling bars at the bottom of the screen, as if our bodies were built to absorb a constant stream of stimuli. Newsflash? They’re not.

Tips For Building Reading Stamina and Eliminating Distractions

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Conquer Reading Log Stress

My ideal family evening is a winter night, all of us snuggled on the couch with a good book. There’s a fire going and no one is in a hurry. Our bellies are full, the dishes are put away, lunches are made. When bedtime approaches, teeth are brushed, hugs and kisses are exchanged, and sleep comes quickly.

Our current reality looks nothing like that. Winter is the busiest time of the year for my family. Both of my kids are playing a sport (basketball) and both have a time-consuming hobby (robotics and horseback riding). Many evenings feel more like a carefully orchestrated circus than a cozy evening of calm. I take solace knowing that the rest of our year isn’t this busy, but that doesn’t help with the stress of the current moment. So when the topic of reading logs comes up, my first thought is, “ain’t nobody got time for that!” Am I right?

As a teacher AND a mom, I urge you to trust your parenting instincts and opt for quality over quantity.

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Parents as Reading Role Models: Modeling Book Selection

One of the most eye-opening facts in Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report was that 91% of kids ages 6-17 said that their favorite books are the ones they’ve picked out for themselves and 90% said that they are more likely to finish a book that they have selected.

Here’s what we make of this: we, as parents and caregivers (along with educators) need to do a better job helping our kids learn to pick out books independently, so that they, in turn, will read, enjoy, and finish more books. How do we do this? Just like any valuable life lesson, the approach with the longest-lasting impact is modeling what we do as real readers ourselves. 

Would you send a young child out into the backyard with a baseball mitt and ball, and provide no explanation? Of course not. You’d show them how to put the mitt on, how to toss the ball, and you’d model throwing and catching.

Just like kids need to see you read, they also need to see how you decide what to read.

Easy Strategies for Modeling Book Selection to Your Kids

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Parents as Reading Role Models: How to Find the Time

One of the greatest things parents can do to influence their children as they grow up is to model the very behaviors and values they hope to instill in their children. Reading is one of the best examples of this: every study shows that children who see their parents reading and writing are more likely to engage in those activities as well. So we’re kicking off a series of posts about how parents can be the best reading rode models for their children.

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The Best Stocking Stuffers for Young Readers

There are countless parenting pitfalls that I’ve fallen into. One is stuffing my children’s stockings with plastic junk, courtesy of last-minute, panic-stricken trips to Target and the Dollar Store on December 23. As my children have gotten older, we’ve tried to teach them to place less value on stuff, and more value on new experiences, quality time together, and doing those things you most enjoy. It became very apparent that my stocking stuffers didn’t pass my own sniff test.

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Never Have I Ever: Confessions from Real Parents and Teachers

Social media is full of perfect families, right? They sit down to a healthy meal each night, enjoy meaningful conversation, and then calmly tuck their children into bed. Is that what your house looks like? We’re usually scarfing down grilled cheese sandwiches as we run out the door to sports practices, my children laughing about burps and farts and me rolling my eyes. Sometimes bedtime is sweet and snuggly, and sometimes it looks like a game of whack-a-mole.

Despite our imperfections, we can all wake up each morning and try to do a little better than we did the day before. Sometimes we will, often we won’t.

We’ve always wanted this website to be a real reflection of real families and their day-to-day routine, and how reading can fit into that lifestyle in a manageable, enjoyable way. In that spirit, here are some confessions, both from the perspective of a parent trying to do her best, and a teacher acknowledging where she has fallen short.

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Gratefulness Giveaway: Win a Book Hand-Selected By Us for Your Child


It’s been about six months since we launched Raising Real Readers, although it was a dream of ours for years before we ever hit “publish” on that first post. Since June, you have filled our comments, social media channels, and even email inboxes with questions, concerns, fears, and excitement about your child’s reading habits. We are enormously grateful that you have allowed us into your home to be a small part of your family’s reading routine.

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Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

When I was 17, my parents took me to New York City on spring break. We splurged on a Broadway show and saw Ragtime, a musical centered around racial injustice in America in the early 20th century. Never before had my eyes been so open to the mistreatment and brutality directed at people of color. The fact that I hadn’t considered this until my late teens is the very definition of white privilege.

And it’s exactly why books like Angie Thomas’ best-selling, award-winning The Hate U Give are so important. For people of color, this book is an important moment of representation, a chance to see their lived experience in print and on movie screens. For readers like me, who grew up in an upper middle class, mostly white suburb, it is a glimpse into the life of a black teenager living in an impoverished neighborhood. We cannot begin to dismantle systemic white supremacy until we recognize and acknowledge the effects of generations of discrimination, oppression, and violence. This book is just such an opportunity to educate ourselves.

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Books as Treats: Halloween-Inspired Book Recommendations and Reading Ideas for Every Age

I have a love/hate relationship with Halloween. Love the decorations, the thrill of deciding on and putting together costumes, the chatting with neighbors as we trick or treat. Hate the extreme sugar rush my kids come home from school with, come home from trick or treating with, and the fights over how much candy they can have each and every day after.

One way to alleviate a bit of the candy coma is by treating your children with books, and encouraging family (like those spoil-them-rotten grandparents!) to do the same. We typically get our kids a Halloween book each fall, or we’ll check out a stack from the library. Over the years, we’ve built a nice collection without ever spending more than $10-15 each October. It’s fun to read one or two each night in the week leading up, and sometimes for days after if we’re still in the spirit.

Books are a way to extend enjoyment of this holiday in a way that doesn’t give kids cavities.

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