Filled with a delightful range of quirky characters and told with heart, the story also explores themes of family, friendship, and courage in its many forms. . . . It has something to offer for a wide-ranging audience. . . . Offering hope to those who struggle academically and demonstrating that a disability does not equal stupidity, this is as unique as its heroine.
— Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
Mullaly Hunt again paints a nuanced portrayal of a sensitive, smart girl struggling with circumstances beyond her control. . . . Ally’s raw pain and depression are vividly rendered, while the diverse supporting cast feels fully developed. . . . 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.
— School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
Please tell us about your book.
Fish in a Tree is about sixth-grader, Ally Nickerson, who misbehaves in school to hide the fact that she struggles with reading and writing. Since her dad is in the military, she has moved from school to school; this has helped her keep her secret. Having moved so often, she has not had to opportunity to forge strong friendships as well – until she meets Kesiha and Albert. It is also very much a school story with eight different student personalities interacting with (sometimes crashing into) each other and their teacher Mr. Daniels.
What inspired you to write this story?
Well, my own life inspired the story. Although I’ve never been tested for dyslexia, I have been suspicious that I have at least a touch of it. I was in the lowest reading group in grades one through six. Mr. Daniels is based on my sixth grade teacher Mr. Christy. I realized about halfway through writing it that Fish in a Tree is a love letter to him and all teachers like him.
I have no doubt that Mr. Christy saved me. I came into sixth grade wondering what would be come of me and left sixth grade with a laser focus on becoming a teacher and helping kids like he helped me. He set a high expectations. Even as a child I knew this was a high compliment and I tried very hard to reach every bar he set for me. He completely changed my perception of myself in on year – a powerful transformation. The man was amazing.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
This book required a lot of research, actually. I had the opportunity to speak with some people who have dyslexia and were not helped until they were older. Unfortunately, even with all the screening in the early grades, kids still slip through the cracks until sixth grade or higher. Being a teacher I know that it is a very difficult job. When a child is very bright, they can often compensate very well and mask their difficulties. Ally Nickerson is such a child. I also had to do a lot of research for Albert. He is a walking encyclopedia but that took hours of finding facts that were not only pertinent but interesting as well.
What are some special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade fiction?
I think one of the special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade are authenticity. At least for me. It takes courage to be honest but middle grade readers respond very well to it – in fact readers of all ages do. So, as the writer we have to crawl into our own basement sometimes in order to get it on the page. Both of the books that I have written make me feel very vulnerable in this regard. They’re honest. And they are me. The vulnerability was difficult at first but now I see it as a gift and I’m grateful to be able to share those aspects of myself with readers.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
The topics my book touches upon that make it a perfect fit for the classroom are family life, love of siblings, being different is a gift, bullying in the sense that we can’t control the bully’s behavior but we can control how we respond to it, a family struggling financially, and how learning disabilities are not necessarily disabilities – just a different way of learning.