In many ways, Fish in a Tree is a classic coming of age novel: over the year that Ally spends in Mr. Daniels's classroom, she transforms from a withdrawn, anxious, and poor student to one that is confident, feels connected to her classmates, and can think hopefully about her future. Ally is able to do this primarily because, for the first time in her school career, she has a teacher who tells her that she's smart in a different way, which Ally eventually comes to believe herself. Through Ally's journey, the novel suggests that a person's identity is made up of stories that they tell about themselves and that others tell about them, and that those stories become true when they're repeated often enough—but also, that a person's identity can change when they change those narratives.
Ally's poor self-esteem can easily be read as the result of years of being told that she's unintelligent and a troublemaker. Because her teachers—powerful authority figures in a young student's life—have focused entirely on Ally's behavioral issues and bad grades, this is all that Ally focuses on as well. Thanks to the focus on just the areas in which Ally does poorly, Ally never learns to value or be proud of the things she does well, like drawing. Despite the fact that she draws much of the time, Ally doesn't think of herself as being an artist and instead sees her talent for art as just another facet of her failure to be successful at school (since she often draws to escape classwork she can't complete). After years of being told she's dumb, Ally comes to believe that this is true—and hearing this is inescapable, as Ally's classmates, especially the bully Shay, never miss opportunities to remind Ally that she's the worst student in class. This shows the power of other people's narratives to shape a person's self-image, and the danger of being exposed to toxic environments and people who look for others' weaknesses before acknowledging a person's strengths.
Mr. Daniels's arrival in Ally's classroom represents a major interruption to the feedback loop that contributes to Ally's low self-esteem. He calls all of his students "fantasticos," shuts down bullying and Shay's rude comments whenever he can, and also celebrates parts of students' identities that they didn't realize were worth celebrating, like Ally's artistic leanings, Albert's logical nature, and Oliver's ability to come up with all sorts of ideas.
As he does this, Mr. Daniels also encourages his students to be themselves. Though Ally, Keisha, and Albert discuss at several points that they don't know who they are at this point in their lives, Mr. Daniels implies through his words and actions that his students are in the middle of a perfectly normal process of discovery —and, radically for outcasts like Ally and Albert, that his students have the power to choose how to define themselves. This becomes especially powerful for Ally near the end of the school year, when Mr. Daniels conducts a history lesson in which he teaches about various celebrities and historical figures including Albert Einstein, George Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, and John F. Kennedy—all of whom are either officially identified as having or are believed to have had dyslexia. By offering these examples of famous, powerful people who changed the world in spite of or because of the same thing that keeps Ally from thinking positively about herself, Ally is able to make the final shift to thinking of her dyslexia as a superpower that makes her wonderfully different, rather than as a marker of stupidity and failure.
Once Ally is able to make this shift to becoming more confident and proud of what she can do well, she also finds that it's easier to ignore the negative things that others say about her. With this, Fish in a Tree brings the ideas of identity as a personal project and identity as a group effort together: by changing the stories that Ally hears, Mr. Daniels is able to teach Ally that who she is isn't a bad thing—and in turn, empowers her to choose carefully who to listen to when others speak about her, and to value her own voice over the negative voices of others.
Identity and Self-Esteem ThemeTracker
Identity and Self-Esteem Quotes in Fish in a Tree
“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?
As I walk back to my seat, I think of how when Dad left, he said that when we look at the steel pennies, we need to remember that we are unique, too. And also, that things will go back to normal for us—that he'll be home before we know it.
I'm not perfect, but at least I'm not mean.
And then my heart sinks, because I realize that I just was.
I guess I did it because I was lonely. Now I know that there are worse things than being lonely.
“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.
“People ask what you want to be when you grow up. I know what kind of grown-up I want to be. But I don't know who I am now.” Albert stretches his legs out. “There are always people ready to tell you who you are, like a nerd or a jerk or a wimp.”
And I think of words. The power they have. How they can be waved around like a wand—sometimes for good, like how Mr. Daniels uses them. How he makes kids like me and Oliver feel better about ourselves. And how words can also be used for bad. To hurt.
Shay sounds like someone completely different. The Shay I know, always so quick to pick a fight, now has a voice that sounds like a kindergartener.
“Sorry, Mama.” She brushes a tear from her cheek.
Normally, I'd be giving him all kinds of reasons I can't do this. But the thing is, Mr. Daniels could hand me a book as heavy as a boulder and I'd try to read it.
Just because he asked me to.
As I draw, I think about my sketchbook and how I love it but don't draw in it as much anymore. It used to be the only thing that made me happy. Now I have other things, too.
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.