Review: Fish in a Tree

A plethora of problematic details ultimately ruin this widely hyped pro-dyslexic novel. See review for quotations.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
Puffin, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015.
MG realistic fiction, 276 pages + sketchbook of impossible things and excerpt.
Lexile:  550L  .
AR Level:  3.7 (worth 7.0 points)  .
NOTE:  This review is a lot longer than my usual.  If you’d just like a general opinion, scroll down to the final paragraphs.

Ally’s been to half a dozen different schools.  With a military dad and working mom, it’s easy to hide things from teachers, like not being able to read.  If trouble arises, she just goes with the laughs and builds on her trouble-making reputation.  But the new teacher is bringing light to her gifts and might illuminate her struggles also, if she lets him.

Fish in a Tree

I wanted to love this book.  It’s been on my wishlist for ages and I hoped this would be a good book to share with the kids.  Instead, I feel ambivalent.  None of the individual issues alone were major enough to ruin it; some parts I liked, but many aspects were problematic.

Let’s start with the problems.

“I think about the story Albert told in social studies when we were studying Native Americans.  He said that they believed butterflies were special creatures and wish givers.  And that if you can catch a butterfly, whisper your deepest wish to it, and then set it free, it will carry your wish to the spirits, who will grant it.” page 117

Thanks to AICL, I’m more attuned to passing mentions like this these days, and didn’t like how this passage refers to ‘Native Americans’ and doesn’t specify a tribe or place this story within an indigenous cultural context.  Specific tribes are supposed to be studied, so why doesn’t she just say the tribe?  Perhaps a minor quibble in a 266 page story, but those add up!

Back to Albert.  He’s a classmate portrayed as neurologically diverse.  It’s a sympathetic portrayal, but there are missteps.  His idol is a character from Star Trek who “puts up invisible barriers so that others won’t sense life-forms there” page 99.  Later in the book he is described by Ally as speaking “Like a boy.  Not a robot version of one” page 102.  This character overall felt problematic, and I’d love to hear an #ownvoices opinion.

Another prominent classmate is Keisha, a girl of color.  This went better than Albert in terms of representation.  Early on in the book Ally tries to touch her hair and Keisha shuts that down.  At another point when Albert and Ally are talking about their differences, Keisha points out that she’s one of the few children of color in their school.

Hunt didn’t fall into the trap of leaving only the white characters undescribed.  She gave few descriptions for any characters, but decent information about their internal attributes and skills.  But it still felt like I was reading a “spunky black girl” trope more than a real person.  Albert, Mr. Daniels, and even minor character Suki had more richness to their lives than Keisha who, other than talking back to the school bully and baking awesome cupcakes, doesn’t have much going on.

Speaking of Suki, she’s at least part Japanese and a recent immigrant.  She speaks in stilted English early on in the novel, but also talked about her respect for her grandfather and passed out wasabi peas.  Suki’s grandfather allows her a point of connection to Ally, who was very close to her recently deceased grandfather.

On page 106-107 the “open bag of crisps” story which occurred to and was first popularized by the late Douglas Adams.  I’ve seen it floating around the internet un- or mis-attributed and disliked seeing it again with no credit paid to the originator.

Spoiler  |
I read this scene and was instantly freaking out though I knew it probably wasn’t what it sounded like:

” ‘Well,’ he says, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, ‘I think you’d like chess.  I could show you how to play after school.  You know, if you’d like.’
‘I’d have to stay after?’
He thinks for a second.  ‘Well, I was thinking of starting a chess club.  I thought you could come first so I could teach you how to play.  If it works out well, we could invite other kids.  It might be fun.  Something different.’
It’s not like I was born yesterday.  I know he’s up to something.  Teachers don’t volunteer to stay after school to play games.  I kind of want to say yes, because Mr. Daniels is cool and I don’t think there is any reading stuff in chess.  And my grandpa would have liked to know I could play.  But it scares me.  ‘Well, I don’t think so.  But thanks anyway.’ ”  pages 147 and 148

It goes on.  But someone please tell me I was not the only one reading that thinking No!  Don’t stay!  This sounds creepy!  I’ve worked with several male teachers and they are always VERY conscious of how they are coming off towards their students and ensuring no boundaries are ever crossed.  I know this guy is a substitute but there is just no way he would not have that in the back of his mind to be careful about.
  End of Spoiler  |

Mr. Daniels is off at several points.  Why didn’t he just tell her or her mom that she had dyslexia?  Why is there no IEP or 504 meeting?  I get that he’s a substitute and still in school, but the way some things happened just felt wrong.  Perhaps the author was writing from experiences in a different time, before all the scandals and some legal changes to the way services are provided.  But if this was historical fiction, there needed to be some more concrete references to the time period.

I did like that Mr. Daniels was a mandatory reporter and referred a case when there was reason to suspect a student might be getting abused.  That little detail was appropriate both to his character and legal requirements in the USA, and true to real life.

Also, the portrayal of dyslexia seemed accurate and mostly affirming in the end.  I liked that famous dyslexics were highlighted, even if it was a somewhat awkward scene.  Hopefully an #ownvoice reviewer can speak more to this.  It seemed similar to what students I’ve worked with have stated or experienced at schools I’ve been involved with.

It’s not that this novel was horrible.  Based on the letter to the reader, it sounds like the author is #ownvoices dyslexic.  She did seem to make an effort to include other aspects of diversity in her novel, and was sometimes accurate.  But I often felt like the message was being shoved in the reader’s face, and there were too many hiccups for me to enjoy the book.

A New York Times Bestseller (the stunning cover surely helped) and winner of many awards, this book is still problematic.  I couldn’t help but feel there’s better diverse books I’d rather promote.  Most students will find this on their own, and I’ll keep it on the shelves for now, but find another read-aloud.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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