“Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
It took me less than a day to finish Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s new novel, “Fish in a Tree.” I was lucky enough to get an advanced reader’s copy, the literary equivalent of receiving a bar of chocolate with a golden ticket inside. Her first book, “One for the Murphys,” has been used in middle-grade classes across the country as a funny yet sentimental look at the complexities of familial relationships. Though her first book set high expectations, “Fish in a Tree” soars high above them as if suspended by a cluster of colorful helium balloons.
Ally is a sixth-grade girl with severe reading problems. Her inability to keep up with her schoolwork affects every aspect of her life, the one precarious domino that knocks all the other ones flat. Ally sets up a series of traps and nets to keep other people at a distance, deflecting all questions with sarcasm and convincing herself that she is beyond help. That is, until she meets Albert, Keisha, and her new teacher, Mr. Daniels, and her preconceived notions of her own intelligence are completely rewritten.
As a girl, I always consumed books the same quick and eager way I consumed ice cream, but that didn’t deter me from empathizing with Ally’s struggle. Dyslexia is never presented as her only defining character trait. Lynda gives every character a personality outside of the context of their disabilities and stereotypes, a rare find in the crowded locale of children’s literature.
The narration is wonderfully visual. There are no cliché, vague abstractions that sound insubstantial. I fell in love with Ally as she explained that reading, for her, is “like asking a lobster to play tennis.” Every thought is vividly depicted in concrete terms, a constant but subtle reminder that Ally’s mind is visually oriented.
This story provides excellent commentary on the misguided expectation that all children of a given age group need to be at the same level of learning. It forced me to take a step backward and examine the promise of homogenized learning like it was an intricate impressionist painting. I was also reminded of all the teachers I’ve had who went beyond their unchanging syllabus and positively impacted my life.
This novel is great for middle-grade kids looking for a sympathetic protagonist, or older teens and adults who were too familiar with the phrase “You just need to try harder.”
Thank you, Lynda, for a novel just as unique, funny, and introspective as its heroine! This book is sure to set the world on fire.
Oh, and by the way: Favorite character?
That’s right. She totally shows up for at least, like, half a page.