As the 9th grade English teacher for my school, I worry about my students’ reading abilities from the moment I meet them. I cannot always find out the necessary information I need from their pasts, so it is up to me to determine where weaknesses and strengths are. That is a vital part of my job, so I start assessing my students from day one. I take everything into account: behavior, attitude, effort, writing samples, reading aloud, whole class discussions, private conversations, etc. I have learned over the years that my reluctant readers are reluctant for a reason. Usually it has to do with some sort of struggle. As their English teacher in a high school with no reading teacher, I know it is my job to act as both.
When I began reading Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s upcoming new novel, Fish in a Tree, I immediately recognized the same reluctant behaviors some of my students have/had in the protagonist, Ally. Here was a bright, artistic 6th grade girl who thought she was “dumb” and “slow” because she struggled with reading. I found myself getting angry at Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Silver–and Ally’s past teachers–because they didn’t try to figure out why Ally was acting the way that she did, or why she struggled on assignments. They just seemed to chalk it up to laziness. I know from my own experience that, yes, students can be lazy sometimes, but if that laziness is consistent, there is usually something else going on. I have to play detective and figure out what’s going on. No one did that with Ally. She was just constantly punished for her misbehavior. That is, until Mr. Daniels showed up.
Mr. Daniels is the teacher that, I think, all teachers should aspire to be. I know I do. Mr. Daniels positive and upbeat attitude, his drive, and his calm demeanor were exactly what Ally needed. She needed someone to show her all the amazing talents she had, so she could see herself as more than just a struggling reader. He patiently assessed the situation by giving Ally assignments and tasks that eventually showed him she had dyslexia. I learned about dyslexia right along with Ally. As I saw what Mr. Daniels saw, images of my own students’ reading struggles were popping into my mind that were similar to Ally’s.
Not only did Mr. Daniels help Ally, but he reminded all of his students about their amazing qualities. I absolutely loved his comment to Oliver after Shay killed an ant in class: “…you have one of the kindest hearts I know. You care so much about everything. Always looking out for others. And that, my fine young fellow, is going to make for a great man someday” (223). Oliver needed to hear that, just like Ally needed to hear from Mr. Daniels that he saw her talents. Throughout the book, I noticed, right along with Ally, the power of Mr. Daniels’s words. All of the students received positive, inspirational comments at some point, and it was because of those comments that all of these students learned and grew as people.
Another struggle in school that some students face, besides academics, is bullying. Lynda Mullaly Hunt does a wonderful job showing how students deal with bullying in different ways. Shay is one enemy Ally must put up with throughout most of the book, though Shay terrorizes other students as well. Shay always seems to be in a bad mood, and wants to be better than everyone else. She lets her classmates know this, too. Keisha, one of Ally’s friends, is willing to stand up to Shay, but Ally feels powerless against her. The reader comes to realize that Shay behaves the way she does because of the way her mother treats her. Ally eventually notices this, too, and ends up feeling sorry for her. By the end of the book, Ally’s newfound strength allows her to use her words to help Shay grow, not bring her down more like her mother does. Albert is another classmate of Ally’s that experiences bullying, and Keisha and Ally are shocked to find out that he doesn’t fight back. Albert is constantly beaten by a group of three boys who mock him for his “brains,” and he could easily stand up for himself because of his large size. Albert doesn’t though. He keeps brushing off the beatings, saying they aren’t a big deal. It isn’t until his friends are in danger that he finally stands up to them. Albert’s friendships with Ally and Keisha give him the strength to stand up to his bullies.
I could go on and on about Fish in a Tree, for I have learned so much from these memorable characters. Though I can’t use this book for a whole class novel unit, I will be using excerpts. I will also be recommending it to middle school teachers in my district. I already have it on my Amazon “wish list,” for I will be ordering it for my classroom library as soon as it comes out. I know my students will learn so much from this book just like I did, and that’s what makes it such an amazing read.
NOTE: A special thank you to Melissa Guerrette (@guerrette79) for creating her Fish in a Tree book vine so I could read this before it came out next year. I loved reading the other comments already in the book; they made me feel like I was part of a book club.