Great Minds Don’t Think Alike by Jason Lewis
“People act like the words ‘slow reader’ tells 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 lots 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 just a kid who can’t read well.”
In Fish in a Tree we are immediately introduced to Ally Nickerson, a girl that has trouble reading and writing. Ally’s troubles cause her to feel bad about herself giving her low self-esteem and a bad reputation. In order to avoid school assignments dealing with reading and writing, Ally often creates distractions that have her heading to the principal’s office. Even when her intentions are good, she still finds herself sitting in front of the principal. The messages that Ally receives from the people around her also contribute to her low self-esteem. The students in her class frequently make fun and laugh at her while teachers don’t expect much from her as they pass her on from one grade to the next.
Enter Mr. Daniels. Mr. Daniels is exactly the opposite of Ally’s previous teachers. He quickly realizes that there’s more to Ally Nickerson than meets the eye, that her mind works a little differently. His calming teaching style coupled with his kind-hearted, patient attitude has Ally wanting to impress a teacher for the first time in her life. Growing up, Ally has defined herself as the dumb girl who can’t read. Mr. Daniels shows her that there’s more to her than just a girl who can’t read. He shows her that she’s actually a lot smarter than she had been giving herself credit for, as she continually completes her work while preventing her learning difficulties from being discovered. Through classroom activities that force Ally to solve them in unique ways, Mr. Daniels shows her that great minds don’t think alike. After being diagnosed with dyslexia and accepting this, Ally allows Mr. D. to help her. With Mr. Daniels’ confidence in Ally, Ally’s own self-esteem improves and she is able to blossom into the person she was meant to be, full of confidence and not afraid to take risks.
As in One for the Murphys, Lynda’s characters in Fish in a Tree took me on a roller coaster of emotions. Lynda’s characters are so real, dealing with everyday problems that the reader can’t help but become invested emotionally. My heart breaks for Ally as she struggled early on and faced obstacles throughout the story. I couldn’t imagine how teacher after teacher squashed her self-esteem. I was furious with Ally’s peers for their actions towards her. Although they may have only said a word or two, rolled their eyes or snickered, the negative impact on Ally was tremendous. I was excited to meet Mr. Daniels, certain that he was going to be the positive role model that Ally desperately needed. When we first meet Keisha and Albert, I hoped they were going to be the friends that Ally craved…and was extremely happy to watch their friendship develop. I also loved Albert’s story and how there was more to him than meets the eye. Finally, I loved the support that Travis gave his little sister and how powerful Travis and Ally’s brother-sister relationship was.
With many tear inducing moments, this story will resonate with middle grade readers for a long time, as well as with teachers. Students will see that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but through perseverance, hard work, and acceptance those weaknesses don’t have to define us.
Teachers often question the impact they have on a child, especially those who struggle. Through Ally’s eyes, teachers will understand the negative and positive influence they can have on a child’s life in the brief amount of time they’re with them. They will see that there’s not always one way to get to an answer. Everyone can accomplish the same things, but the path you take getting there may be different than someone else’s path, and that’s okay. It is these lessons and more that make Fish in a Tree a perfect book to connect to real life. Additionally, this book is the perfect conversation starter for themes such as acceptance, perseverance, friendship, and being true to yourself. It’s not a mistake that Lynda mentions Patricia Polacco’s name in Fish in a Tree. Mr. Daniels belongs on the same Mount Rushmore of dynamic teachers like Mr. Falker and Rob Buyea’s Mr. Terupt in Because of Mr. Terupt.
Many teachers have Ally Nickersons in their classrooms. We hope that we are their Mr. Daniels. These students hope that we can spot their struggles and when they cry out for help, they hope we will be there to give them the support they need. They need us to tell them that it’s okay to not be perfect at something, it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to do things differently, it’s okay to take risks, and most importantly it’s okay to be yourself.
With Ally’s new found self-confidence, the possibilities become endless for her. She begins to feel a part of her class where her voice truly matters, she develops deep friendships, she stands up to those who have bullied her, and most importantly she begins believing in herself. Through her difficulties with school work and her peers, I was instantly rooting for Ally. I felt horrible, my stomach in knots as she encountered each obstacle. As I finished I sat there wondering about Ally’s future, confident that it would be one with many successes! Many readers of this book will see Ally in themselves and use its message to succeed in their own ways.
Jason Lewis (@jasontes5th) is a 5th grade teacher at Tyngsborough Elementary School in Tyngsborough, Massachusetts. Jason recognizes his participation in the Nerdy Book Club has positively impacted the way he teaches and has introduced him to outstanding people he calls friends. Jason is honored to review Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s Fish in a Tree as his very first post for Nerdy Book Club.