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Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Ally is an army brat that has to move to new schools all the time. She’s okay with this, though, because it makes disguising the fact that she’s a 6th grader that can’t read easier. Every time a teacher asks her to do something that requires reading, she just pulls one of her stunts by being the class clown or just being outright bad. But Ally would rather get in trouble than admit she is stupid. She doesn’t want to ask for help because she doesn’t think she is capable of being helped.

When the principal moves her to a new class because she is disruptive, Mr. Daniels is different from her other teachers. He is taking classes to be a special education teacher. Because of this, he works extra hard to acknowledge the different ways his students learn, their different talents, and how to work with them. He doesn’t have a special ed class, but his techniques help all the students feel involved in their learning. For the first time, Ally is being respected for her artistic talent and clever math reasoning. She isn’t being sent to the principal every day. And, for the first time, Ally wants to ask for help. But “there isn’t a cure for stupid” and Ally doesn’t know if she should take the risk to ask.

Ally gets headaches when she tries to read and the letters dance around. It takes her hours to do her homework and then she is asked to read it aloud. So, she usually just skips homework. But now, Ally wants to try really hard for Mr. Daniels.

Meanwhile, she gets to know Keisha who is the class loud mouth, in a good way. She stands up to the bullying Shea and doesn’t let it bother her. Albert is obsessed with science and math and usually doesn’t talk to the other kids personally. The trio bond over their differences and learn how to use their talents.

Fish in a Tree is a contemporary realistic fiction book with ability diverse character. I’m not sure how authentic they are. Ally’s emotional turmoil and desire to hide her reading disability make her think things about herself that aren’t true, react to others based on what she thinks of herself, and behave in ways that she believes are helpful to her but really aren’t. (like not asking for help, getting in trouble when asked to read anything, not talking back to bullies, etc). This is realistic. Her friends? Not so much. While I like Keisha and Albert, I’ve never met kids that act like or say the things that they do. Grown up phrases and overly gushy and sympathetic words come out of their mouths. It doesn’t feel authentic, and it actually bothered me a little that Ally’s only friends didn’t seem real.

The storyline is issue oriented and moves slowly, but not in a bad way. Ally is slowly discovering that she can open up to Mr. Daniels and get help so that she can read Alice in Wonderland, the book her grandpa gave to her before he died. She even ends up identifying that her brother has dyslexia too and encourages him to get help. I just wish her friends were better developed and not grown up robots inside of children.