Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fish In A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

I read oodles of books. Always have. Always will. Sure wish these blogs were around when I was growing up in the age of typewriters. My reading experiences are quite different than the students I chat with on a daily basis. They come at books with their own unique perspectives. Just like me. Just like you. This book has an appealing emotional punch that is similar to "Wonder," by R.J. Palacio and terrific character development. As an adult reader who has many favorites when it comes to books on children with disabilities, I'm getting pickier over what is original and stands out in the herd. While some parts of this story were touching, others fell short.

Sixth grader Ally is in school and her teacher is going on maternity leave. She asks her students to write a short paragraph on themselves for the long-term substitute teacher. The teacher and Ally get in a power struggle because Ally doesn't want anyone to know she can't read or write. Ally gets angry at being forced to write and scribbles hard on the desktop because she knows she'll get out of the activity. The teacher sends her to the principal and cleans the desk. Hmmm... usually the kid would clean the desk but this is one frustrated teacher. And she plays right into Ally's hands.

Ally's brain will think one thing and she'll blurt out another. Making friends is like washing peanut butter out of hair. She is bullied by Shay but also laughed at constantly by other kids in class. Most think she is trying to be funny and her quick-witted responses are often accidental - she doesn't mean to be a jokester or sassy-mouthed. The result is she fools the adults around her and successfully hides her disability. Other outliers in her class are picked on such as Albert, the scientific genius; Oliver, the ADHD tornado; and Keisha, the cooking prodigy. When the new teacher shows up he figures out that Ally has dyslexia and the two bond as she deals with her learning difficulty. More importantly, he draws out the potential in her and she learns to read and believe in herself.

The beginning sets up the stereotyped teacher that can't manage students and is exasperated by an uncooperative student. Her character is flat and perhaps it makes her a more obvious foil to the substitute teacher, Mr. Daniels; however, her lack of complexity made me not as engaged in the plot until Mr. Daniels chalks his way into the classroom scenes. Ally's inner monologue shows the emotional turmoil of a kid that is full of self-doubts. Students will empathize with Ally as she agonizes over making friends, feeling like a loser, and dealing with her problem. She lashes out at others and desperately wants to fit in with her peers. When she makes friends with the other misfits, Albert and Keisha, she finds power in friendship. Although when Ally first meets Keisha she asks her if she likes eggs and rambles on about all the different ways she likes eggs. This painful exchange magnifies her social ineptness. By the end this drastically awkward girl has all but disappeared.

The middle of the story takes off with characters defined by distinct traits and voices. Ally's brother shows that he has an engineer-type brain but suffers from the same learning fate as Ally. The dad is deployed overseas in the Middle East and the mom is doing the best she can with her children. The brother's ingenious design of windshield wipers without a motor reveal his innovative and inventive spirit. Mr. Daniel's character shows he's not always perfect either. Sometimes he singles Ally out to praise her and give her confidence that makes her feel like a charity case, other times he shares her secret. The complexity of trying to teach Ally is captured not only with her fragile ego, but with Mr. Daniel's not always making the right choices when dealing with her. This strengthens the authenticity of their relationship and shows that Ally can forgive even when she's been hurt by adults. I thought Mr. Daniel got preachy at times changing the focus from Ally's internal changes to a slight didactic tone on how to behave, especially at the end.

The humor balances the darker themes of bullies, anger, and misunderstandings. Ally tells Albert and Keisha why Shay is hell-bent on making her life miserable and it is easy to see why they don't get along. And it is Ally's fault. I won't spoil it, because it is so Ally. Needless to say Ally's mistake and Shay's relentless put-down's are understandable. Shay's mother is a bully, as well as her daughter, making Shay's character more understandable and engaging. The author creates strong characters that pull the reader into the plot along with themes such as self-acceptance, confidence, and communication, to name a few.

The ending doesn't seem authentic because Ally goes from this impulsive kid that is a bit odd to a leader in the classroom that the kids look up to, ask advice, and want to be friends with in a very short time. It did not add up with the evolution of her character. Perhaps when Keisha, Albert, and Ally fantasize about the future about how successful they will be and are dreaming big, it sent me spinning off the cliff. I just needed them to be settled in their skin and instead the focus shifts toward them being successful in the eyes of the world and that jarred with me because up to that point they were being successful in their own eyes. In the book, "Absolutely Almost," by Lisa Graff, the boy learns to accept himself without outward success and it seemed more authentic; whereas, this is more wish fulfillment. There is nothing wrong with it, but it made the resolution feel off.

Novice readers have limited emotional experiences and reading is one way they can live vicariously through characters and be exposed to emotions before they happen in real life. This exposure helps prepare them to have empathy for others. By representing the inner qualities of a character such as feelings, beliefs, assumptions, intentions, and thoughts, an author can produce a way for readers to empathize with fictional characters giving them a strong emotional engagement that supports their cognitive and social development. This book does just that. And while I'm coming at it from as an adult reader and see some holes, I know that most will want to be on team Ally. A great addition to any library.

4 Smileys

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