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Book Review

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Because her military family moved a lot, it used to be easy for Ally Nickerson to hide the fact that she has a reading disorder. She has attended seven schools in seven years. But now that her father is on deployment, Ally is stuck. It is getting harder to fool her teachers and classmates, and she winds up getting in trouble because she will act out in class rather than tell anyone her secret.

Ally tries to make it up to her teacher by giving her a beautiful card before she goes on maternity leave. Ally picked out the card herself and thought the bouquet of yellow roses would show how sorry she was for her behavior. Unfortunately, the card is a sympathy card, and everyone is shocked that she would do something so inappropriate.

Besides her secret, Ally must battle Shay, the popular girl in her class who is also a bully. Shay and her friends make fun of Ally because they think she is weird. They also tease Albert — for being big and talking like a science nerd — as well as over-talkative Oliver..

Life would be unbearable for Ally if it were not for her loving mother and cool big brother, Travis. Her mom works as a waitress at a local diner. Travis works part time as a mechanic and dreams of owning his own restoration shop. He is a whiz with anything mechanical but he, like Ally, loathes school.

Things begin to change when Mr. Daniels takes over her class. He does not allow Shay to tease anyone, at least not while he is listening. Oliver, the boy who usually talks incessantly, now quiets down without Mr. Daniels saying a word, but Ally notices it is always after the teacher pulls on his ear.

Ally panics when he gives each student a journal. He promises he will never correct their writing. He only wants them to express themselves. Instead of writing words, Ally draws a black cube. When he questions her, she says it is a dark room because in a room like that, she would not be seen. She tells him it would be easier to be invisible.

One day Shay asks Ally to sit with her and her friends in the cafeteria. Shay starts to tease Albert about his shoes. He has cut the back off of them so they look like slippers. Albert calmly defends his decision as a way to save money so he can buy a new chemistry set, but Shay continues her attack. She then coerces Ally to join her.

Although Ally liked being included in Shay’s group of friends, she hated the way she felt after teasing Albert. After talking to her mother, Ally apologizes to him the following day. A few days later, at the holiday concert, all the girls are given a beautiful bouquet of flowers to carry. When another student, Keisha, gently touches one of the roses, a petal falls off.

The music teacher accuses her of pulling the flowers apart and takes the bouquet from her. Ally knows it was an accident and feels bad that Keisha will be the only girl without flowers. She tears her bouquet apart to give half to Keisha. The teacher refuses to let either of them have flowers, but Ally does not care. She knows she did the right thing, and she now has a friend.

Ally, Keisha and Albert begin to eat lunch together and stick up for each other against Shay’s taunts. They walk home together and often hang out after school. Albert admits that bullies often challenge him on his walk to and from school. They try and make him fight, but he will not stoop to their level. Instead, he winds up getting bruised from their hits or even a black eye.

Although Ally loves the way Mr. Daniels never gets angry when she hands in an assignment with her messy handwriting or a drawing, she is humiliated when he gives her the prize for best poem. She knows her poem was not the best and does not want his pity.

She tries to explain her frustration to Keisha, how she hates that her brain works differently than everybody else's. Keisha assures Ally that she knows what it is like to be different, as she is African American. She, Ally and Albert will always stand out from the crowd — and that is OK. They will all be successful someday.

Mr. Daniels talks to Ally about her work. He tells her he wants to have her tested for a learning disability called dyslexia. He promises he can help her read, if she is willing to work with him after school. He has her write letters in shaving cream and other unique methods in order to help her brain think differently about letters and words.

Ally’s newfound confidence is nearly ruined when the class has a substitute teacher. She gives the class an assignment to write about a person they think is brave. She then tells Ally that Mr. Daniels left a note that she does not have to write about her person. She can just draw a picture.

Ally is humiliated. She has Keisha help her write a letter to Mr. Daniels, telling him that she will never do extra work with him again. Mr. Daniels apologizes to her the following day, explaining he never wanted the substitute to announce the note to the class. He only meant to let the teacher know that Ally might give her a drawing, rather than a paragraph, and that would be fine. Ally accepts his apology.

Mr. Daniels asks for nominations for class president for the school’s first student government. Shay's best friend nominates her, and nobody has the courage to run against her. When Mr. Daniels says that he will draw another name from a hat, Shay raises her hand and nominates Ally to run against her.

The next day, Ally and Shay have to give a speech in front of the class. After encouragement from Mr. Daniels, Ally tells the class that she will work hard and listen to every student who has ideas, not just her friends. When the votes are counted, Ally wins the election. After school, Ally sees Shay’s mother yelling at her for losing the election, and Ally knows that is the reason Shay is so mean.

One day, Mr. Daniels shows pictures of some of the most creative and intelligent people in history such as Pablo Picasso, Walt Disney and Albert Einstein. He tells the class that all these smart people had dyslexia. Ally is stunned. The dynamics of the classroom continue to change as Mr. Daniels helps each student to recognize his or her own unique abilities. Although still popular, Shay begins to lose some of the control she wielded over her friends. Ally’s circle of friends begins to grow as she learns to appreciate each of her classmates.

One day, when Ally, Keisha and Albert walk home, three boys accost them. They are the bullies who regularly attack Albert. When Keisha tries to stop them, one of the boys throws her to the ground. Albert comes to her defense. He throws one of the boys down and hits another who takes a swing at him. The boys run away. As they walk home, Albert says that he is against violence, but that his father taught him it is never right to hit a girl. And he would do anything to keep the boys from hurting his friends.

Ally realizes that her big brother, Travis, is also dyslexic. Although he is a natural at fixing mechanical things, he is having problems at work with the new manager who wants him to follow the manuals. One day, when Travis is picking her up after school, she asks Mr. Daniels if he will help her brother learn to read as well. He agrees. Ally knows now that nothing she dreams is impossible. With hard work and perseverance, anyone can set the world on fire.

Christian Beliefs

A Thanksgiving board in the classroom asks the students for what they are thankful. Ally thinks about how many times she has prayed to be better at reading. Keisha makes a comment about how there is no way on God’s green earth that Albert will not be successful one day.

Other Belief Systems

None

Authority Roles

Ally’s father is deployed, and her mother often works long hours as a waitress, but it is apparent that Ally feels safe at home and knows she is loved. Her mother often encourages Ally. It is obvious that Ally’s struggles worry her mother, and she tries to help her daughter. Even though Ally exasperates her teachers and the principal in the beginning of the story, it is clear they all want to help her. Mr. Daniels is patient with each of the students and helps them all to see their unique potential. After school, Ally sees Shay’s mother yelling at her for losing the election.

Profanity/Violence

God’s name is used a few times as an exclamation alone and with my. The euphemism heck is also used.

Albert often comes to school with bruises on his arm. Once he comes in with a black eye. He tells Ally and Keisha that he often gets picked on as he walks to and from school. Although he is bigger than most of the other students, he does not believe in violence except to protect his friends who are girls.

Ally and Keisha witness one of the bullies shove Albert. When Keisha tries to defend him, the boy yanks her arm and throws her to the ground. They dump out her book bag and rifle through her belongings. The boy threatens to step on her when she tries to get up. Albert throws two of the boys down. He hits one of them. The boys run away.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

None

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Lying: Ally lies in order to keep her illiteracy secret.

Bullying: Verbal and physical bullying are described throughout the book. Shay’s behavior is explained by her mother’s attitude, but it is not given as a reason to excuse her actions.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

10 and up

Author

Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA)

Released

On Video

Year Published

2015

Awards

Schneider Family Book Award, 2016

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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