Fish in a Tree tells the story of Ally, a sixth grade student with unidentified dyslexia. Dyslexia is a learning disorder that means that Ally has a hard time reading and writing—she gets headaches, words seem to move on the page, and it takes her hours to write a paragraph. Ally believes that she's unintelligent and will never learn to read until her long-term substitute teacher, Mr. Daniels, suggests that she undergo testing for the disorder and begins to help her learn to read after school. As Ally begins to improve and thrives under Mr. Daniels's mentorship, she eventually comes to understand that dyslexia isn't a matter of intelligence as she initially thought. Instead, she begins to shift her thinking to believe that there can be many different kinds of intelligence and ways to learn, all of which are simply different, not better or worse than any other.
Ally begins the novel with a set idea of what constitutes "smart." For her, being smart means that a person, first of all, can read, which then allows that person to do well in school, complete their homework, and make friends. At first, Ally can do none of these things. She does whatever she can to avoid reading, especially out loud; her inability to read means that she resorts to making up words that she can't identify quickly, often with humorous results (as when she reads about the “macaroni” swimming down the river, not the “manatee”). Though her classmates find this funny, it also encourages them to think of her as being weird and unlikeable, as it often appears to be a bid for attention—when in reality, Ally just doesn't want to suffer the embarrassment of admitting to her teacher that she can't read. She also avoids writing, as her dyslexia combined with dysgraphia (mixing up letters on the page) means that what she writes is often unintelligible—even though the paragraph or report in Ally's head is cohesive and well thought-out. All of this works together to make it seem to everyone—Ally's teachers, classmates, and Ally herself—that Ally is unintelligent, a troublemaker, and bad at school.
However, Ally's internal monologue, which takes the form of visual "mind movies," and her Sketchbook of Impossible Things, where she draws the contents of these mind movies, make it clear that there's more to Ally than her poor school performance. Ally's mind movies, which are thoughts that she sees when her attention wanders, are detailed, fantastical, and make it clear to the reader (the only other person who, for much of the novel, is privy to them) that it's not Ally's intelligence that's in question. Instead, she simply cannot convey the ideas in her head to others in a way that's accepted at school. Notably, Ally has this problem primarily because in a conventional school setting, students are evaluated on their ability to read and demonstrate their knowledge through writing, not necessarily on their thoughts when expressed orally or through pictures. This suggests that the issue is twofold: while it's true that Ally will have a difficult time in school because she can't demonstrate her knowledge in a way that teachers want her to, the school system also doesn't allow for individuals like Ally to show what they know in ways that would allow them to succeed.
Fortunately for Ally, Mr. Daniels recognizes that Ally isn't stupid at all. He makes it clear to all of his students that in his classroom, different types of intelligence are valuable and should be celebrated. In doing so, allows Ally to begin showing him what she knows in ways that work for her. Mr. Daniels celebrates Ally's drawings and encourages her to tell him her reports, not just write them down. Later, when he has her tested for dyslexia, begins teaching her to play chess, and starts working with her to develop tools to make reading easier, Ally begins to believe Mr. Daniels's constant refrain: that Ally’s brain simply works differently and her strengths lay in visual expression, not in reading. In other words, Mr. Daniels creates an environment in which Ally is able to show what she knows in a way that allows her to use her strengths to her advantage, while also teaching her how to be more successful in the areas where she struggles.
With this, the novel does two things. It first continues Mr. Daniels's project of making it clear that there are multiple ways to be intelligent, if only a person is given the opportunity to choose their mode of expression. Second, it recognizes the constraints and the norms of the world that Ally lives in, where literacy and being able to perform in a conventional school setting offer a person a much easier path to success than eschewing school and reading altogether. Taken together, Fish in a Tree then offers a hopeful vision for the future in which all students can be recognized and celebrated for their strengths, while also acknowledging the damage that can be done when students are allowed to believe that their learning differences make them lesser than their classmates.
Dyslexia, Intelligence, and Learning ThemeTracker
Dyslexia, Intelligence, and Learning Quotes in Fish in a Tree
I stand tall, but everything inside shrinks. The thing is, I feel real bad. I mean, I felt terrible when the neighbor's dog died, never mind if a baby had died. I just didn't know it was a sad card like that. All I could see were beautiful yellow flowers. And all I could imagine was how happy I was going to make her.
I'm so tired of this conversation. We've had it a hundred times, even though my third-grade teacher told her that I might just be slow, that my mom shouldn't expect too much of me. My mom's eyes got all wide and shiny when she heard that, and I felt sad and embarrassed for her having to be my mom.
“Well,” the guy says, “if you know anything about coins, you know that a coin with a flaw in it is far more valuable than a regular coin.”
Something isn't right with it and it's worth more?
The next morning, I am trying to decide if I should turn in my paper, knowing Mr. Daniels will probably think I spit it out in two minutes. The truth is that it cost me my whole night and a headache that was so bad, it reminded me of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland always yelling, “Off with her head!” Just because I thought that would be a relief.
People act like the words “slow reader” tell them everything that's inside. Like I'm a can of soup and they can just read the list of ingredients and know everything about me. There's a lot of stuff about the soup inside that they can't put on the label, like how it smells and tastes and makes you feel warm when you eat it. There's got to be more to me than a kid who can't read well.
“Do you know what it means to think out of the box?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“It means that you are a creative thinker. You think differently than other people.”
Great. Just once, I want to be told I'm like everyone else.
“It's a good thing to be an out-of-the-box thinker. People like that are world-changers.”
It comes from a place so deep inside, it's like it's coming out of the ground. “I just... I just want to fit in for once. I mean, I really do. Just to be the same as everyone else.”
“You are smart, Ally. And you are going to learn to read.”
A chill runs through my whole body. I don't have any choice but to believe him, because I can't go another day thinking things will be like this forever.
I walk over to the garbage and drop it in. Watch it twist and spin as it falls. I look up and lock eyes with him and wish I had the words to tell him how grateful I am for his helping me. In this world of words, sometimes they just can't say everything.
And looking around the room, I remember thinking that my reading differences were like dragging a concrete block around every day, and how I felt sorry for myself. Now I realize that everyone has their own blocks to drag around. And they all feel heavy.
I want you to know how sorry I am about the bumpy road we had for a while. I'm proud of all the strides you're making. All the hard work you're doing. We should have picked up on your learning differences before, but you were so bright... and, well, I hope you'll give me another chance to help.