The Story: Fish In a Tree, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, is a stand-alone novel about a young girl named Ally Nickerson who enjoys school but struggles in reading. It’s not for a lack of trying but she tends to avoid books because she fears her limitations will be exposed. To cover for herself, she makes minor mischief at school that leaves her misunderstood by her teacher and peers. But when a new teacher arrives, he helps Ally see her true potential. Combined with a fledgling self-confidence and new friends, Ally takes small steps towards conquering her fears and insecurities.
My Take: This was one of those cases where the cover attracted me to the book before I even knew what it was about. (You have to admit – that is a pretty cool image and it looks more impressive in person as the fish is actually glossy so it stands out.) Thankfully, the book’s premise and story both held weight, enough to make it one of my favorite never-read-before reads of 2015.
Fish in a Tree is a middle grade novel (judging by the age of the protagonists and overall writing style) that focuses on Ally Nickerson, a young girl who has her own unique struggles. Her father is deployed overseas in the military, so her mother works a food service job to support the family. But while her current family situation doesn’t trouble Ally too deeply, she still struggles in school. Granted, Ally is a math whiz and great at being artistic but reading really stumps her. Rather than seek out help though, she hides her weaknesses by pretending to be a minor troublemaker in hopes that it will distract from her limitations (as it turns out, Ally actually suffers from a learning disability but I won’t spoil the story by revealing specifically what that happens to be).
Just when it seems that Ally’s teachers have given up on her, a new teacher arrives named Mr. Daniels who has hope for Ally and reminds her that she’s just as smart and capable as everyone else. Likewise, Ally makes friends with two other underdogs, Keisha and Albert, both of whom possess their own unique quirks and the little trio both complement and contrast each other perfectly. Together, they create a close bond and work to not let the school’s bullies (led by Shay) get them down. In the end, Ally learns that her personal limitations should not define her as she doesn’t let her disability get in the way of her life.
Honestly, the best way I can sum up this book is that it’s just a very good story – and there’s nothing wrong with that. The characters, who can, if I’m being honest, seem a bit flat at times (but not so one-dimensional that they lack any charm) are fun and easy to root for; and even the bullies aren’t depicted as utterly despicable. Likewise, the plot flows nicely and nothing seems jarringly out of place in terms of the events in the story. In fact, much of what delivers the book’s charm are its vignettes, which serve as slices of Ally’s life, but they all tie into each other so it doesn’t feel like a collection of short stories.
Granted, it doesn’t try to sugarcoat Ally’s struggles but nothing here reeks of constant depression or utter despair. I point this out because it’s been my experience that books in this vein sometimes assume dark overtones. The child is abused, molested, mistreated, dies, etc. That’s not to say such topics don’t deserve to be talked about in fiction, but sometimes it’s nice to read a book that focuses on the sunnier side of life. And that’s exactly what Fish in a Tree does. Rather than dwell on Ally’s troubles at schools, her loneliness, or invent some horrendous scenario where Mr. Daniels is actually a child molester or the school bullies push Ally to commit suicide, this book delivers an uplifting story where there are no true villains and that focuses more on life’s ups rather than its downs.
Granted, there are moments where the plot becomes a little predictable, especially near the end when Ally enters the race to become class president. But, to be honest, Napoleon Dynamite used the same plot device to great effect, so I can’t find much fault with that.
Sometimes predictable is okay, especially if the outcome is in the well-deserving protagonist’s favor and the story warrants such an ending, which this novel certainly does.
Seeing as this novel deals with a learning disability as its central theme, I feel it presents the topic respectfully and fitting for its target age range (meaning it doesn’t go into any of the complexities but just talks about the basics). I never got the impression that at anytime was the matter treated callously or carelessly, so I can’t imagine anyone with a disability being offended by this book. If anything, children who suffer from the same struggles that Ally does might find some encouragement here, and for children who do not struggle it just might open up the opportunity to talk about learning disabilities so they can better understand the issue, especially if they have friends or family members who have learning disabilities.
In the end, Fish In the Tree is just a good, wholesome, uplifting story that isn’t afraid to touch on some serious issues but it never delves into dark places. Its lead protagonist is a generally chippy young lady whose struggles to discover her talents and find her place in the world are universal yet she finds a way to rise above her hardships in a way that will ultimately put a smile on your face and warm your heart.
Content: [Overall, there were no significant issues, so it would be good to pass along to young readers (perhaps ages 8 and up) though its subject matter would make for good discussion between readers and parents/guardians and even teachers:]
Language -Essentially none. If there was any profanity, it was minimal. (It’s been a while since I’ve read this, but off the top of my head, nothing worse than a PG-level word is all that could conceivably be present.)
Violence – None. While one bully’s taunts are emotionally hurtful, they never cross the line into physical abuse nor does she constantly torment other characters.
Sexual Content – None.
Overall, Fish in a Tree is true to its title: it’s charming, quirky, and shows that everyone is gifted differently so no two people are alike. Without being too preachy, this novel shows readers that disabilities don’t have to define or confine you. Ally is a true sweetheart who perseveres and keeps her chin up. The ending is satisfying and also proves that life isn’t all doom and gloom. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a pick-me-up read as well as to teachers who might consider adding this novel to their classroom’s shelves. It’s a treat to read and an encouragement to everyone.