Fish in a Tree

288p. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Bks. Feb. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399162596; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781101601327.
RedReviewStarGr 4–6—In her second middle grade novel (One for the Murphys, 2012), Mullaly Hunt again paints a nuanced portrayal of a sensitive, smart girl struggling with circumstances beyond her control. Ally is great at math, and her ability to visualize moving pictures makes her an amazing artist, but she has a terrible secret: reading is almost impossible for her. By using her wits and adopting a troublemaking persona, she's been able to avoid anyone finding out a truth she is deeply ashamed of, but a new teacher at school seems to see right through the defenses she's built. While Ally struggles to accept the help that Mr. Daniels offers, she also deals with a father deployed in the Middle East, crushing loneliness, and an authentically awful set of mean girls at school. Ally's raw pain and depression are vividly rendered, while the diverse supporting cast feels fully developed. As the perceptive teacher who finally offers the diagnosis of dyslexia, Mr. Daniels is an inspirational educator whose warmth radiates off the page. Best of all, Mullaly Hunt eschews the unrealistic feel-good ending for one with hard work and small changes. Ally's journey is heartwarming but refreshingly devoid of schmaltz.—Elisabeth Gattullo Marrocolla, Darien Library, CT
When her teacher goes on maternity leave, sixth grader Ally humiliates herself by giving Mrs. Hall a sympathy card. No one had discovered--until now--that Ally cannot read. When substitute teacher Mr. Daniels arrives, things begin to change. Well-developed secondary characters (mean girls, a new BFF who sticks up for herself and others, the heroic teacher) add richness to the story and help Ally grow.
Ally Nickerson may be well spoken and have a great sense of humor, but something is not right. Why is this sixth grader spending so much time in the principal's office? Why is she doing such impulsive and destructive things? Why do the mean girls, Shay and Jessica, continually torment her? It's not just that she is a new girl in school, though attending seven schools in seven years has taken its toll. There is something else. When her teacher goes on maternity leave, Ally humiliates herself by giving Mrs. Hall a sympathy card rather than the expected baby card. She is not trying to be cruel; she simply cannot read, and for some reason, no one has discovered this until now. When substitute teacher Mr. Daniels arrives, with his new instructional techniques and his love for his "Fantasticos" (i.e., students), Ally knows things are going to change. This has all the required parts of a school story: the mean girls, the quirky but lovable boys, the new BFF who sticks up for herself and others, and the heroic teacher. These secondary characters add richness to the story and help Ally, who is telling her own tale in the first person, to grow as a learner and person. While the resolution to Ally's struggles with reading and social acceptance happens too quickly, readers will nevertheless cheer for this likable girl. robin smith

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