Fish in a Tree

by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
First sentence: “It’s always there.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: The chapters are short, and while there are some bigger words, there’s nothing that a 3rd grader couldn’t handle. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Ally doesn’t like school. Part of that is the result of her moving so much — her dad’s in the military, currently deployed in Iraq/Afghanistan (it didn’t say; I’m assuming this) — of it is because Ally can’t read. It’s a fact she’s hidden by becoming a troublemaker and through her art, but whenever she tries to read, the words swim, her head hurts, and she just. can’t. do. it.

Enter in Mr. Daniels, the permanent sub for her regular sixth-grade teacher who’s off on maternity leave. He picks up on Ally’s defense mechanisms, and realizes that there’s more going on than meets the eye. He espouses the believe that not everyone’s smart in the same way (yay for that!), and draws on Ally’s strength, giving her the confidence to make friends — Albert, the science geek, and Keisha, a baker extraordinaire — and to stand up to the classroom bully, Shay.

There are some nitpicky things that bothered me throughout that kept me from loving this as much as I wanted to. First, why did the teacher have to be male? I’m torn on this one: on the one hand, it’s showing a man doing things that are “normally” reserved for women. He’s concerned about his students, he’s caring, and he reaches out. Not to mention that he’s a man in a female-heavy profession. However, it seems to me in books like this — where a teacher saves a struggling student — the teacher is always male. It’s the men who get to think outside the box, who find ways to connect with the struggling students, who make changes within the system. And that bothered me.

Additionally, there’s a point when Albert comes out of his shell to fight back against his bullies, in order to protect Ally and Keisha from them. Perhaps that was in character for Albert, but it bothered me deeply. Why did he need to protect them? I initially thought it was because they were his friends — maybe he’d do the same for boys who were his friends — but then he says something about “never hitting a girl”and I cringed.

On the other hand, I was glad that Hunt included a broad spectrum of personalities and classes: there are people who are hyper, middle of the road kids, rich kids, kids on free lunches. The usual suspects — drugs, bad parents, etc –aren’t anywhere to be seen. The focus, really, is on celebrating our differences, and recognizing that intelligence isn’t tied to doing well on tests. And that’s worth celebrating.

So, while it’s an uneven book, I’m glad it’s out there.

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