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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.


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