*Serious Face Review*

“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.” 6th grader Ally Nickerson feels like that fish most days, where school is a constant battle to hide the fact that she can’t read.

Letters swim on the page and trying to decipher them gives her a pounding headache. To distract her teachers from her academic struggles, Ally creates constant disruptions, preferring to sit through endless lectures from the principal than spend another second feeling like the loser of her class.

When she accidentally gives her teacher a sympathy card at the class baby shower, Ally decides this will be the worst year yet. With her father deployed, mother working long hours, and grandfather recently deceased, her loneliness mounts in and out of the classroom.

When Mrs. Hall leaves to have her baby and Mr. Daniels takes over the class, Ally isn’t sure what to make of him. On one hand, he’s charismatic and exuberant. But much to Ally’s chagrin, he loves books and reading, which interest her about as much as contracting the plague.

Grudgingly taking it day by day, Ally slowly begins to realize that Mr. Daniels is different from her previous teachers. He finds something to celebrate about every student, including Ally’s keen sense for math and precocious drawing ability. He’s also the first to pinpoint her struggle with reading as dyslexia and helps her find new ways to learn that finally stick in her mind.

For the first time, Ally dares to hope that things can get better. Discovering that nobody really “fits in,” she connects with two other members of her class – bold and brash Keisha, and encyclopedic Albert, whose mind clicks along like a computer. With their support, Ally learns to find worth in herself, and decides this year might not be so terrible after all.

“Fish in a Tree” is ideal for any child who has ever worried about school, and also for the educators and parents who want to set them on the road to success. Mr. Daniels’s enthusiasm will likely remind readers of a favorite former teacher, the kind that brings out the best in each student.

A word of caution is that the classroom environment created by Mr. Daniels seems a tad idealistic, especially to those working in education today. “Fish in a Tree” essentially boils down to the idea that all it takes is a teacher who “really cares” to unite students of diverse cultures, socio-economic backgrounds and learning abilities into a whirlwind of inclusion, where everyone learns to be a better person. Reality is rarely so simple.

Another drawback was how it seemed to disparage Ally’s former educators, who are presented as borderline incompetent for failing to recognize her dyslexia. Mr. Daniels’s passion for his students seems to be an exception rather than the rule, but most educators would probably argue the opposite is true.

Regardless, “Fish in a Tree” does a good job of showing how “smart” is not determined by a single test grade. It addresses racial and socio-economic diversity among the students, presents a strong anti-bullying message, and touches on the struggles of deployment and frequent movement faced by military families. It may not account for the bureaucracy that all too often plagues modern education, but it is a heartwarming story about making sure no student falls through the cracks. All it takes is one person to reach out, and suddenly fish can fly.

Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt