Thursday, March 05, 2015

Who Says? Fish In A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Getting an award for not being smart enough to deserve it is the worst feeling. Like getting this certificate is going to make me pat myself on the back and transform into a different person. I swear I'll never accept an award that I don't deserve.

Keisha calls my name as I run from the classroom. I run into the bathroom and hide in a stall.

The door opens. "You okay?" Keisha asks.

"No. I'm not."

"Who runs from an award?" Keisha asks.

"I didn't win it for real. Mr. Daniels is just trying to be nice. You don't understand. Go away."

"You're right, Ally. I don't understand."

"Look," I say. "Imagine if every time you got on your bike, you had to worry if the wheels would come off. And they do. But you still have to ride."

"Why in the world are you talking about bikes and wheels coming off?"

"My brain," I say, leaning my head against the cold wall. "My brain will never do what I want it to do."

Ally has a great memory for anything she hears. Math is easy for her, and she's a talented artist. Everyone says so. But letters and words seem to wiggle across the page when she tries to read them. To hide her difference from everyone else, Ally has a whole bagful of tricks to distract attention from her inability to read, which means she spends a lot of time hiding in the bathroom or sitting in the Principal's office. Her teacher Mrs. Hall and her hard-working mother just tell her she needs to try harder.

But Ally knows that trying harder to read the wiggly letters only makes her brain freeze like a broken Etch-A-Sketch. She's in constant fear of being discovered and risking the scorn of the whole class, led by Shay, who might as well have CLASS MEAN GIRL on a sign around her neck. But when Mrs. Hall takes a leave of absence, things get better when Mr. Daniels comes to take her place. Mr. Daniels seems to value what she can do well, and without a word to the class, he changes her assignments to make them possible to complete. Slowly, Ally begins to understand herself and see that she's not the only one who doesn't always fit in. As her friend Keisha tells her...

"Look.  You don't fit in. I don't fit in. Albert doesn't fit in. Who says who fits in anyway? Who wants to fit in with people like Shay?"

You can't judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree is the theme of Lynda Mullaly Hunt's latest, Fish in a Tree (Penguin Group, 2015).  Recognizing individual differences mean that accepting our own and others' abilities and deficiencies goes deeper than just giving the nod to "diversity." Writing for middle graders, Hunt's singling out archetypes such as Shay, the mean queen bee, Albert the class brain, Keisha the street-smart black girl, and Jessica, the needy wannabe who apes the "popular" kid, may appear a bit obvious, and it seems a bit strange that a veteran teacher and principal can't recognize a case of dyslexia right under their noses, but Hunt is not writing for adults; she is writing for youngsters for whom these are brand new problems. And with her new understanding that her reading problem is just one among those her classmates share, Ally comes to see that in a way, her mom and Mrs. Hall were right--she does have a lot of hard work ahead. What is different is that she knows she's not the only one and she's not afraid to ask for help any longer.

Hunt's latest book is a worthy companion to the recent notable classroom-centered novels that help preteen students understand and deal with differences, their own and those of others in the school setting. Notable among these are Rob Buyea's Because of Mr. Terupt, Jennifer L. Holms' The Fourteenth Goldfish, Ann M. Martin's Rain Reign, and R. J. Palacio's Wonder.

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