As I read the beginning of Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, I had a nasty bout of déjà vu. Decades have passed for me, but the description of Ally Nickerson’s feelings as her teacher encourages her to try to write a page flooded me with the memory of soul-cringing embarrassment. I can recall with absolute clarity standing in front of my first-grade teacher’s desk, looking over the faces of my classmates at a list of words taped to the far wall. I hated that list with all my heart—it contained words that every first grader was supposed to be able to read. For me it might as well have been the directions to hell. As the other students in my group read efficiently, I would listen and try to memorize the words as they spoke. When it was my turn I could rattle off the first ten or even twenty. After that, nothing.
Hunt captures the inner confusion and feeling that you aren’t getting something everyone else grasps easily that is a pre-diagnosed dyslexic’s life. On the first page Ally is asked to write a few paragraphs about herself, which sounds like an easy enough task for most sixth graders. For Ally, to do her best is to be told that she isn’t trying, she’s too messy, and she’s a careless speller. She’s caught in a tide of embarrassment and pain exacerbated by a headache caused by dark letters on bright white pages. In desperation Ally acts out, scribbling on her desk. Yet again she finds herself sent to the principal’s office, substituting one pain for another.
Later, trying to make up for her behavior, Ally gives Mrs. Hall, her teacher, a beautiful card at Mrs. Hall’s farewell baby shower. Ally, who spends much of her school day filled with fear and embarrassment, is proud of her beautiful card. When the principal catches sight of the card she orders Ally into the hall. It’s painful to see Ally, who for once had been proud of herself, shrink with embarrassment and guilt. The principal is furious—the card, with its photo of lovely yellow flowers, was a sympathy card. In all truth, Ally’s situation conjured up so many memories at first that it was hard for me to read. But I persevered and the reward was great.
The characters in Fish in a Tree are well fleshed out. The teachers aren’t “bad” or “good” but are hard-working professionals who care about and try to understand a girl who appears to be bright yet troubled. Ally’s military family feels like a real, close family even as her father is in his second year away. Her big brother loves his sister and cares for her, her mother works hard, and her father, though deployed, is a tangible presence in their lives.
At school, when Ally’s teacher goes on maternity leave and a new teacher arrives, Ally represents herself as a dark room—she wishes to be invisible. As the story continues, she begins to trust her new teacher, Mr. Daniels, because his infinite patience makes her feel “like he’s handing me a flashlight in a dark room.” It is Mr. Daniels who realizes that Ally is dyslexic. As he puts into motion the request to the school for her to receive the help she needs, he also, with her mother’s permission, begins to work with Ally. In no way does it feel like he rescues Ally; instead, he helps her find her own way. It is very much a story of Ally traveling—through strength, perseverance, and support—along her own path of learning.
Another way that Hunt creates good characters is with Ally’s class. They begin as this great mass of names, but as the book progresses they become individuals that interact and interplay. Even the “mean girl” is given a reason and Ally generously gives her a chance at real friendship. There is another boy in the class who obviously has another behavioral/learning difference—we never find out its exact nature or name. We don’t need to know; what we are shown is Ally observing a good teacher in action. Mr. Daniels doesn’t embarrass the boy, but rather teacher and student set up a signal when he needs to calm down. Ally is comforted by the fact that a teacher actually seems to enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to teach children with differences rather than wanting them all to be the same.
The way that Hunt describes the details of dyslexia was fascinating to me. Ally says: “reading for me is still like trying to make sense of a can of alphabet soup that’s been dumped on a plate.” Not all dyslexics are the same but that is one example that is absolutely true for me, even today. During college I once stayed up all night to work on a paper. The next morning I went into class and, like Ally, was looking at a pile of indecipherable letters. Fortunately, the professor knew I’m a hard worker and that I’m dyslexic so we muddled through that class. After that, I learned to plan carefully for papers and tests because staying up all night was not an option.
For a dyslexic to get the information into their head and to help it stick, it helps to engage other senses. When Mr. Daniels begins helping Ally he, too, engages other senses. Instead of a pencil and paper they use a metal sheet and shaving cream. Ally shapes the letters in the shaving cream, her sense of touch helping her brain learn the shapes of the words. Later he has her tap out letter sounds, again bringing senses other than sight into play. These scenes resonated for me—part of my training included my tracing words with a finger while saying the letters out loud. Or using a Tutorette, a machine that had both the word written out, a corresponding picture and a recording of a voice that said the word, spelled it out and said it again, employing as many senses as possible.
Later in the book, after Ally has come to trust Mr. Daniels, she has stand to up in front of the class and give a speech. She tries several times but nerves and the sea of faces causes her brain to “Etch A Sketch” and go blank. The speech that she wrote so carefully has become indecipherable. She stands there, mouth open, but no sound comes out. It’s only after Mr. Daniels quietly tells her that he believes in her and suggests Ally close her eyes that she can speak. Through his careful encouragement, Ally finds her voice.
For Ally Nickerson there is no easy ending, which is right. There is no “cure” for dyslexia, and Ally has a lot of work ahead, but it’s work she knows she’s capable of doing. Because I was diagnosed in the mid-1970s, I wondered if in a modern school, when teachers are so much more aware of learning differences, could a child really get to sixth grade without anyone realizing? There is a lot of reading in fifth grade: how could it be that Ally was never spotted, even if she did change schools frequently? Since I’m not a learning expert I asked a friend and fellow dyslexic who is a reading specialist.
“Oh, yes,” she said, sadly. “Easily.”