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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Fish in a Tree, written by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin. 2015. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"Monday is vocabulary day, when Mr. Daniels goes over the new words for the week. As far as reading lessons go, this isn't so bad. All I have to do is listen as he tells us the word's meaning, and I can usually remember it because I make mind movies about each one and that helps me remember. I've always had one important rule in the classroom, which is to try to lay low."

I love and admire Ally Nickerson!
I love Ally's mind movies!
I love Ally's Sketchbook of Impossible Things!
I love her big brother, Travis!
I love her new teacher, Mr. Daniels!
And I love FISH IN A TREE ... let me tell you about it.

Ally has just started her stay at yet another new school. It's the seventh one in seven years, and that would be hard for any child. Her father is in the military, and that means that the family is often on the move. For Ally, her days here are the same as in every other place she has been. She works double-time to ensure that no one will see her real struggles with reading and writing. She acts the clown and disrupts the class to take attention away from what she cannot do, and to be sent to the principal. She hates school and we come to understand the many reasons for that. To avoid some of the pain of her many school failures she creates elaborate and vivid mind movies:

"I watch a mind movie of her taking a stick and drawing a line in the dirt between us under a bright blue sky. She's dressed as a sheriff and I'm wearing black and white prisoner stripes. My mind does this all the time - shows me these movies that seem so real that they carry me away inside of them. They are a relief from my real life."

When Mr. Daniels is hired as a substitute while the classroom teacher is on maternity leave, things begin to change. He sees Ally's strengths and focuses on those, eventually giving her the confidence to share her struggles with him, and to ask for help. All the while, we are completely aware of how bright, intuitive, strong and funny Ally is through her powerful first person narrative. She knows herself very well and is fully that her brain works differently when it comes to learning to read and write. She doesn't need others to know.

Mr. Daniels is not the only one who sees what is wonderful about Ally. She has two terrific friends in Keisha and Albert. They are strong secondary characters who want to be her friends, and who appreciate her sense of humor, her feisty responses, her incredible stories and eventually, her secrets. Travis is the big brother we all would want to have, or be. He gives her strength while struggling with his own learning problems. He shares his dreams, and he loves Ally unconditionally.
This portrait of dyslexia and its repercussions for one young and admirable girl is so well drawn. The shame felt and perpetuated by misunderstandings is clear through Ally's impeccable voice. In the end her story is hopeful, and a worthy follow-up to Ms. Hunt's first book, One of the Murphys. You should read both. They are books for your heart!

"Keisha laughs again. "One thing's for sure. We're not going to fit in, but we're going to stand out. All three of us. You wait and see. You're going to be a famous artist and Albert is going to cure cancer or invent talking fish or something." "Talking fish? What would they say? 'Please don't fry me?'" I push the door open, and her face is just like I imagined. "And you're going to have a big baking business, right?" "Maybe in my spare time. I'm also going to rule the world." I laugh. Then swallow hard. "Thanks for being my friend, Keisha."

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