Ally doesn’t like school. She is always getting into trouble and the work is just too hard. When she tries to read or write, the words just seem to dance around and she just can’t do it. Her teacher doesn’t understand her and the mean girls make fun of her. Until she meets Mr. Daniels. When her teacher goes on maternity leave, Ally’s world changes and it’s because of Mr. Daniels. He is not like the others. In fact, he is not like anyone Ally has ever met. Fish in a Tree is a wonderfully written story about longing to fit in, while also longing to be yourself.
Sixth grader Ally Nickerson has a secret: she can’t read or write. Well, she can, but she isn’t good at it. The words dance and jumble and jump off of the page. Ally has managed to get by and fool everyone around her, including her teachers; her dad is overseas in the Army and her mom works all of the time, so it is easy to pull off. That all changes when Mr. Daniels arrives. Mr. Daniels is the new teacher who is taking the place of Mrs. Hall, who is having a baby. He sees Ally right away and is determined to help.
Meanwhile, Ally is also dealing with the mean girl in the class, Shay. She is always picking on Ally, Albert, Keisha, and anyone else who doesn’t fit what she thinks is “cool”. Ally is amazed by Albert’s ability to brush off the insults and Keisha’s ability to stick up for herself and others. Ally wonders why she can’t be better at that; why she can’t be better at anything.
Ally soon realizes that Mr. Daniels truly is trying to help her, and she feels that she really wants to make him proud. The work is hard though, and it seems hopeless. Ally asks her big brother Travis for help, but Travis has the same problem; fixing cars is easy for him, as art is for Ally, but reading and writing is a challenge. One day at school, Mr. Daniels asks Ally questions about her headaches and about words being jumbled when she’s reading. Ally can’t believe he understands, and Mr. Daniels offers to help her after school and wants Ally to get tested. Ally agrees when she learns that he will excuse her from doing homework and will teach her how to play chess.
Soon after, Mr. Daniels announces that they will hold an election for class president. Jessica nominates Shay (of course), and Shay nominates Ally as a joke. The joke backfires on Shay when Ally wins, and the class starts to realize just how mean Shay really is. During a new social studies unit, Mr. Daniels talks about famous people who have all been known to have dyslexia such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, George Washington, and Henry Ford. Ally is shocked and proud that she is among these influential people, and everyone around her is nice and friendly, except Shay.
One day, while walking home from school, the bullies who have been bothering Albert begin taunting Albert, Keisha, and Ally. Albert, who is normally peaceful and quiet, stands up to the boys when they push Keisha to the ground. When he finally fights back, the boys get scared and run away. The girls are shocked and proud of Albert for finally standing up to the bullies. Later, Ally realizes that Travis must have dyslexia too, and asks Mr. Daniels to help him.
Fish in a Tree is a must read for all middle school students, and would make a perfect addition to any classroom library. Students will no doubt find it easy to relate to these sixth graders and all of the struggles that come with growing up.