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Fish in a Tree

Fish in a Tree
Written by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Published in 2015 by Nancy Paulsen Books
Grades 4-8
ISBN: 978-0-399-16259-6
Book Review
“Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.” Meet Ally Nickerson, a sixth grade girl who has learned the art of disruptive distractions as a way of surviving the daily grind of school. Like many middle grade students, Ally has years of feeling inadequate, insecure, and inept in her history of schooling—that is, until she meets Mr. Daniels. Calling his students “Fantasticos” and challenging them with Friday thinking puzzles, Mr. Daniels represents the teacher we all want to have and that many of us strive to be. He recognizes Ally’s creativity and intellectualism and affirms in her the bright student that she has always been struggling to reveal. In Fish in a Treewe bear witness to Ally’s transformation as a student who initially believes the taunts of “loser” and “dumb” she repeatedly hears from her classmates to a student who is willing to ask for help as she comes to understand her diagnosis of dyslexia. Like her poignant debut novel One for the Murphys, Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s Fish in a Tree is a powerful reminder that our identities are never fixed and that given a classroom environment grounded by care students can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their learning and in their social lives. Fish in a Tree is a welcome addition to middle grade classroom libraries as a text club selection, read-aloud, or independent reading book that is sure to inspire conversations about how to build a compassionate classroom community. This book is part of a growing collection of children’s literature that positions readers to not only acknowledge differences among peers but to act with greater empathy and understanding.
Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Grades 4-8
Thinking Metaphorically: Fish in a Tree. Discuss with students Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s selected title for the book. What are the ways in which Ally has been positioned as a fish trying to climb a tree throughout her years of schooling? How did her teachers perpetuate this model? Encourage students to talk back to schooling experiences that positioned Ally as incapable. How is Mr. Daniels different in his approach to teaching and how does this transform Ally’s understandings of herself as a learner? Support students to consider the ways in which they feel they have been positioned in school and beyond. What are times when they have felt like a fish in a tree? Have students write, draw, or orally share those moments. Next, challenge students in partnerships or small groups to craft other metaphors for feeling disenfranchised, othered, or incapable. Display their metaphors as year-long reminders of the power of positioning and the shared goals you have as a classroom community to counter those “fish in a tree” narratives.
Author Study: One for the Murphys and Fish in a Tree. Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s two novels are worthy of close study using a duet read-aloud structure or in text clubs. To build student interest for either approach, initiate the author study with the sharing of book trailers (see Further Investigations below). What do students learn about the characters and plots of these stories by viewing the trailers? What similarities do they already notice between Carley Conners and Ally Nickerson from these viewing experiences? Consider ways you can support your students as close readers of multimedia by viewing and reviewing the trailers using different lenses: a personal lens (what connections or disconnections do I have to this?), a contextual lens (what do I notice about the setting and context of the story?), or a semantic lens (what does this book seem to be mostly about?). As students engage in reading one or both of the novels, support them to read as writers noticing Hunt’s use craft techniques and overlapping themes evident across both selections. Finally, support students to create collaborative book trailers themselves for one of the selections using digital storytelling techniques with consideration of framing, use of visuals, sound, and print text to reveal their collective thinking about the book.
Character Study: Compassion, Connection, Community. Ally. Mr. Daniels. Albert. Keisha. Travis. Oliver. Jessica. Even Shay. The characters in Fish in a Tree help us consider our own humanity and how caring communities are built. Engage in class discussions about which characters feel most authentic and why using questions like: Which characters live their lives compassionately? In what ways? When do characters feel connection or disconnection? And what are the ways community is built in the classroom, in Ally’s home, and in other spaces throughout the book? Have students select a character they want to focus on in a character study. Students can be supported to select passages that are defining moments for the character. Following passage selection, have students explain in writing and by speaking about why they selected particular textual moments and what they reveal about the character. Use ReadWriteThink’s Character Trading Card Creator for students to further demonstrate their knowledge about the character.
Reading with Empathy Text Set. Great literature often encourages us to rethink our own assumptions about others, to act with greater compassion, and to empathize with characters and the people we come to meet in life. Gather other middle grade texts that can support students to read with empathy and grow in their understanding of other’s diverse life experiences including Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate, Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead, The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, El Deafoby CeCe Bell, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, Because of Mr. Teruptby Rob Buyea, Sahara Special by Esme Radji Codell, and various Joey Pigzatitles by Jack Gantos.  Make this your text set of read alouds across the school year or organize students in text clubs by having them self-select the book that speaks to them the most.  Have students present book reviews of their selected stories with an emphasis on how the book encourages readers to act with empathy in their own lives.
Researching Famous Figures: Understanding Dyslexia. As Mr. Daniels comes to understand that Ally may have dyslexia he decides to share with the class famous figures that changed the world and who historians believe may have had dyslexia including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Patricia Polacco, and Whoopi Goldberg. Organize students into research teams to learn more about these famous figures and their impact on the world. Using online and library resources, develop a selection of ways for students to share with one another what they learn including poster presentations, Glogster multimedia posters, character profiles, imagined interviews, or dramatic representations. Engage in class discussions about how these figures and their impact on the world help us better understand dyslexia from an asset-perspective rather than a deficit-perspective. Further the class investigation by learning more about dyslexia from a variety of organizations including the International Dyslexia Association and The National Center for Learning Disabilities.
Outside the Box Thinking. Ally is told by Mr. Daniels that she has “outside the box thinking”. Discuss with students what they think that might mean and create either a traditional anchor chart or use a cardboard box to create a three-dimensional “chart” that lists the ways they engage in outside the box thinking. Make the chart or box interactive and ongoing by placing it in a classroom space alongside some post-its for students to add moments when they engage in outside the box thinking or when they see a classmate engaged in outside the box thinking. One way we see this in Ally is through her Sketchbook of Impossible Things where she sketches things like flying cars and flying fish, but where she also sketches seemingly impossible things about herself such as a sketch of her speaking at a podium to a room of admiring fans.  Like Ally, students can sketch their own ideas about impossible things about the world and themselves, but students can also use their sketchbooks for their own purposes such as to record what they see in nature, to sketch things from their home life, to sketch dreams they have for themselves and the world.
Set the World on Fire Action Projects. Mr. Daniels uses the phrase “set the world on fire” to encourage his “Fantasticos” to find their own missions in life. Consider the ways in which various characters set the world on fire such as Ally running for class President, Albert standing up to the boys who repeatedly bullied him, and Jessica rejecting Shay’s group think. Encourage students to map their own thinking about the ways they already set the world on fire and how they hope to do so in the future. Students can construct timelines of moments in their lives they recognize they set the world on fire by doing something new, different, or scary. Students can use this as a running theme in personal narrative or memoir writing as they reflect on and craft stories from their own lives that have significance to their readers. Encourage students to come together to create their own action projects that strive to make the world a better place in their school or local community. Extend student learning by reading biographies about people who have “set the world on fire” in a myriad of ways including Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, Me…Janeby Patrick McDonnell, and One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul. Share the book Can We Help?: Kids Volunteering to Help Their Communities written and photographed by George Ancona to show some of the ways young people are setting the world on fire in their local communities.
Critical Literacy
Global Read Aloud Project. Created in 2010 by Pernille Ripp, a seventh grade teacher, The Global Read Aloud project is an opportunity for classrooms and readers to engage in collaborative conversations about a select group of books each school year. Since 2010, there have been more than 500,000 students that have participated in over 60 countries. One of the 2015 text selections is Fish in a Tree along with The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes as well as other middle grade novels and picture books. View the Global Read Aloud Project website with your class and view the embedded introductory video that explains the purpose and process for participating.  Part of the vision of Pernille Ripp is to have “one book connect the world”. Engage in debate as a class around whether students think that is impossible, realistic, or visionary. Do they agree with Pernille Ripp’s selections for this year? Engage in online discussion with other schools through Twitter using the #GRA2015. Finally, investigate the map of the world that represents global locations where readers have committed to the project. What do your students notice about where in the world participation is coming from? Does this correlate to places in the world where students have access to free books? To public education? What could be done to include greater global representation for communities that are underserved when it comes to public access to children’s literature?
Complicating The Discourse of Grit. Mr. Daniels helps Ally value herself by reframing dyslexia as one of the reasons why Ally has shown grit and determination in her life. The discourse on grit has been sweeping schools since research by Angela Duckworth from University of Pennsylvania and Carol Dweck from Stanford University has made its way to the public discourse around school success. View with students a variety of TED Talks on the topic of grit including Angela Duckworth’s “The Key to Success? Grit”  and Alain de Botton’s “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success”.  Counter their perspectives with other media outlets including a range of articles from the Washington Post such as Mike Rose’s piece “Why Teaching Kids Grit Isn’t Always a Good Thing”. Engage in discussion around whose argument seems strongest? Why? What evidence does each researcher give to support their thinking? What are the dangers of overemphasizing grit over other things such as social and economic factors that influence success?  Have students complicate the discourse of grit by composing and presenting their own position statements on the role of grit in determining one’s success in school and in life. Consider having students interview family and community members to find out their positions on the topic.
Further Investigation
Online Resources
Fish in a Tree Site
Fish in a Tree Book Trailer
One for the Murphys Book Trailer
Read.Write.Think Character Trading Card Creator
Global Read Aloud Site
TED Talks on Grit
Washington Post articles on Grit
National Center for Learning Disabilities
International Center for Dyslexia
Applegate, K. (2015). Crenshaw. New York, NY: Feiwel and Friends.
Benjamin, A. (2015). The thing about jellyfish. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Bell, C. (2014). El deafo. New York, NY: Harry Abrams.
Buyea, R. (2011). Because of Mr. Terupt. New York, NY: Yearling.
Codell, E. (2004). Sahara special. White Plains, NY: Disney Hyperion.
Draper, S. (2012). Out of my mind. New York, NY: Antheneum Books for Young Readers.
Gantos, J. (2011). Joey Pigza swallowed the key. Bronx, NY: Square Fish.
Hunt, L. (2013). One for the Murphys. New York, NY: Nancy Paulsen Books.
Palacio, R.J. (2012). Wonder. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Polacco, P. (2012). Thank you, Mr. Falker. New York, NY: Philomel Books.
Stead, R. (2015). Goodbye, stranger. New York, NY: Wendy Lamb Books.

Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.


  1. Another picture book biography about using grit to transform a disability into change in the world is A Boy and A Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz. In this story, the boy succeeds despite the education system he is in; it could be an interesting contrast to some of the books featuring wonderful teachers.