Book Review: Fish in a Tree


posted by Beret.

Reading level:  4-6 grade. The protagonist is in sixth grade, however, and she wouldn’t have been able to read it. In fact, that’s the point. This book is for anyone who has ever struggled in school or felt like they didn’t fit in.

One rainy day last July, I wandered into a bookshop and accidentally left with a stack of five new hardcovers. Just what I needed for my suitcase.

The clerk was lovely. She agreed enthusiastically with all of my opinions–which is terribly charming–and I bought Fish in a Tree based on her recommendation and its adorable cover. So much for judging books by their contents…although, I finished it last night, and that’s what I’m set to do now.

I loved it. Here’s why…Summary:  This is a novel about Ally Nickerson, a bright sixth-grade girl who has convinced her teachers that she is a behavior problem rather than admit she can’t read and write. Sadly, she has also convinced herself that she can’t learn.

Ally is familiar with the inside of the Principal’s office, eating alone, mean middle school girls, and feeling like a disappointment to everyone. School is her worst nightmare, since it presents her with the daily terror of facing a blank page with a pencil. She’ll do almost anything to avoid that…except ask for help.

Then, when Ally’s regular teacher goes on maternity leave, Mr. Daniels arrives.

Mr. Daniels is young. He is different. He wears goofy ties and calls his students “Fantasticos.” Mr. Daniels sees through Ally’s tough act. He also removes her escape valve, however: “I know that you have spent a lot of time in the office…” he says. “But if we have something to deal with, you and I will deal with it together…What happens in room 206 stays in room 206.” Her life hack of disappearing in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges will no longer fly, and when forced to examine what’s really going on, they discover that Ally has dyslexia.

The title comes from one of Mr. Daniels’s pep talks, which he paraphrases from Albert Einstein: “Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.” He admires her facility with numbers, her creative reasoning, her artistic abilities; he gives her plenty of opportunities to shine. And because he has shown his faith in her, he convinces her to trust him and work with him, and together they take steps to help Ally break the code of language and literacy.

Though the end is just as chipper and tidy as one might expect for a book written for ten- to twelve-year-olds, there is no magic solution to Ally’s reading difficulties. The only magic is in changing one’s mental framework from “impossible” to “possible.” Otherwise, there are no short cuts to the hard work ahead of her.

Throughout her academic trials and tribulations, a second and equally important story emerges in the pages of Fish in a Tree: discovering what it means to be and to have a good friend and ally.

A few of the other interesting characters:

Keisha: a girl who “tells it like it is,” and bakes cupcakes with words inside.

Albert: a  genius who seems tone-deaf to the social world around him.

Shay: who thrives on making Ally miserable with comments such as, “The world gets dumber every time Ally Nickerson speaks.”

Why it’s great:  Some of the most poignant parts of this book were the author’s descriptions of Ally’s inner world as she makes what appear to be aggressive or defiant decisions. I had a tough time getting through the chapter where she unwittingly gives her pregnant teacher a sympathy card at the class baby shower. It’s impossible not to see this girl as an empathetic character, someone striving to be a decent person, while continually feeling ashamed of herself.

The author also chips away at the clique of popular kids to reveal the self-doubt and instability underneath. She shows what happens when students band together to defy the most powerful girl, and how strength of character can help sort out who’s who in the sphere of potential friends. This book should be required reading for humans everywhere who are trying to make sense of life in the tweens.






Author: Beret Olsen

Beret Olsen is a writer, teacher, and photo editor for 100 Word Story. She loves toast, the Oxford comma, and all your comments and questions.

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