For the most part the suffering is done in silence; wanting to remain unnoticed at the same time as hoping to be acknowledged by the group. It's difficult to be known for being too tall or too short, too heavy or too thin, too smart or not smart enough, too young or too old or anything outside of the current approved unwritten rules for normal. Younger children are better able to see a person's true self. As they get older their vision of individuals might have labels attached.
By the time middle school begins the agony of trying to find out who you are and what you should be doing is complicated by the perceptions others have of you as more layers of labels have been added. Make no mistake; sometimes the actions and remarks of our peers are brutal. Fish In A Tree (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), February 5, 2015) a new middle grade novel written by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (One For The Murphys) explores the experiences of a sixth grade student and her relationships with friends, classmates, family and one insightful teacher.
In Trouble Again
It's always there. Like the ground underneath my feet.
"Well, Ally? Are you going to write or aren't you?"
Mrs. Hall asks.
If my teacher were mean it would be easier.
Seven schools in seven years have not helped Ally but sixth grade has been even more challenging especially now with Mrs. Hall being replaced by a substitute in November when she takes maternity leave. She is trying her best to fulfill Mrs. Hall's request to write about herself but the glare of the paper, the beginning of a headache and the difficulty making letters form words, is too much. In her conversation with Mrs. Hall we quickly meet three classmates, Oliver who bursts out laughing and speaks frequently without thinking, super intelligent with logic like Spock, Albert, and Shay whose words cut like a knife. As this chapter closes we also know a little more about Ally, she is witty with a keen sense of humor.
It's when Ally mistakenly gives Mrs. Hall a sympathy card at the class baby shower; we are privy to what she has kept hidden for years. She can't read; letters move and dance whenever she looks at them. Three more student names become part of the narrative, Jessica, two-peas-in-a-pod pal of Shay, Max, always ready for a good time, Suki, a quieter soul with excellent ideas, and Keisha, a new student, outspoken, brave and a champion for those who are different. After a conference, yet again, with the principal, Mrs. Silver, Ally knows she should tell the truth but how do you tell people you think you're dumb.
Although Ally has the support of her warm-hearted waitress mom, her dad currently deployed overseas and mechanical genius older brother, Travis, who struggles with school too, Ally's constant coping companions are her Sketchbook of Impossible Things where she perfects her artistic skills and the movies she plays in her mind. When Ally and her classmates meet Mr. Daniels, the new teacher, on his first Monday in their classroom his resounding cheerful,
"Okay, Fantasticos! Take your seats!"
signals a new beginning for everyone but especially Ally. Within a few days his interactions with the students, his lessons and activities, questions and responses to their answers tell them he is here to help them be their best selves.
Each day in the classroom, during lunch hours and special events a pattern of change begins to take shape. Keisha, Albert and Ally form a friendship, a trio of strength, brains and not only artistry but the ability to visualize answers "outside the box." Ally realizes Mr. Daniels is trying to figure something out by his questions asked of her.
On a field trip, when a particularly cruel action by a classmate sends Ally running, Mr. Daniels seeks her out pointing out her creative, inventive and artistic abilities and reveals his theory about her learning differences. Chess lessons after school expand to include re-learning lessons as a teacher connects with his student enriching her world beyond her most fervent wishes.
The birth of a star, shared secrets, a fox, a chicken and a bag of grain by a river, a class election, a tricky letter, an ant defender, a lesson in dyslexia, a stance against bullies and help for a hero are all ripples from the pebble, Mr. Daniels, thrown in Ally's pond. The slip of paper given to her with the im torn from impossible is given to another. We may not always see it but when we give each person we meet value with our sincere attention and yes, love, it has the power to change everything for good.
The worth and capacity of this title to affect an impact on readers, as in Lynda Mullaly Hunt's debut book, is her masterful skill at creating fully believable characters placed in true-to-life situations. Giving voice to Ally's inner thoughts allows us to feel her every emotion. The dialogue between all the characters gives you the sense of being a silent participant; Ally's shadow, if you will. I can't begin to tell you the number of times I laughed out loud at Ally's remarks either said in her mind or as conversational statements. You find yourself wanting to shout out in frustration or disgust, to cheer for victories and to hug Ally, her family members, her friends, classmates and Mr. Daniels for those moments when their acts of kindness fill you with hope.
A technique Hunt uses excellently is a closing thought or bit of dialogue at the end of each chapter. It expands our thinking as readers. It also makes us wonder what will happen next. At the end of chapter 42 Mr. Daniels is speaking to Oliver about him having one of the kindest hearts. It is followed by a two page chapter which might be one of my favorites in the book. The kindness Ally and Keisha extend to Albert in the form of t-shirts is almost overwhelming.
The first time I read Fish In A Tree I began to place sticky notes in my favorite spots. On my second reading I added even more. Here is a picture of my book, an advance uncorrected galley, so graciously given by the publisher. I have selected some passages to share with you below.
Mrs. Hall clears her throat.
The rest of the class is getting tired of me again.
Chairs slide. Loud sighs. Maybe they think I can't hear their words: Freak. Dumb. Loser.
I wish she'd just go hang by Albert, the walking Google page who'd get a better grade than me if he just blew his nose into the paper.
Alice in Wonderland---a book about living in a world where nothing makes sense made perfect sense to me.
"I miss Grandpa," I say. Three words that hold sadness like a tree holds leaves.
He seems disappointed. I turn to go.
"How about if I excuse you from homework for learning how to play?"
I stop like my feet are strapped to thousand-pound blocks. Did he just say that? I turn around. "What's the catch?" I ask.
"No catch. If you stay after to learn chess for a few days, I'll excuse you from homework on the days you stay."
"Am I going to have to write a paper or something?"
"No papers. Promise."
"I just come in here and play a game and I get out of homework? No catch?"
"Well, you can't tell anyone in the class. I'll call your mom about it, though." He holds his hand out to shake. "We have a deal, then?"
I can't say no to that deal. Homework is only one step above death.
Fish In A Tree written by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is a tribute to teachers, single individuals, who are forces of change in the classroom. Everything Ally and her classmates and the adults in their lives learn during the course of this book can be applied to life as a whole. If you've ever felt singled out because of any kind of difference this book will show you the importance of asking for help, the significance of true friends, and the beauty within yourself. You are never alone. Ever.
To discover more about Lynda Mullaly Hunt and her books please visit her website by following the link attached to her name. On July 2, 2014 Lynda Mullaly Hunt was a guest blogger at the Nerdy Book Club where she revealed the cover and spoke about her personal connections to this book. Here is a Pinterest board created for Fish In A Tree. On January 22, 2105 Lynda Mullaly Hunt was a guest at teacher librarian extraordinaire, John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read. She speaks about the ten similarities in making a book trailer and writing a novel. The book trailer below was revealed at the same time. Here is a link at the publisher's website for a study guide to this title and One For The Murphys. Update: Matthew C. Winner, teacher librarian, chats with Lynda Mullaly Hunt at his upbeat informative Let's Get Busy podcast. Update: Lynda Mullaly Hunt is the guest blogger at the Nerdy Book Club, Who Is Travis Nickerson From A Fish In A Tree?