Lynda Mullaly Hunt is the author of Brightly’s Book Club for Kids pick, Fish in a Tree, a middle grade novel about a bright young girl who struggles with learning differences. We spoke with Lynda about her own struggles with reading as a child, the real-life teacher who changed her perception of herself and her path forward, and what we can all learn from our encounters with failure.
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Why did you want to write a book about dyslexia? Why do you think it’s a topic that all children can connect with?
Fish in a Tree definitely came into being because of my experiences in the classroom from both sides of the desk. I was a student who struggled, and later a teacher who looked for ways to buoy kids every day, to ensure success for each one of them.
I think all humans of any age can connect with someone struggling because we all do. Maybe we don’t struggle with academics, but we all have challenges somewhere in the world. I think reading about characters who overcome challenges builds empathy for others, which is important in terms of becoming a good person.
However, one of the things that has made me happy as an author is that my books have allowed children to develop empathy for themselves. There are a lot of kids beating themselves up over perceived faults and we need to teach kids that failure is not to be feared or avoided. Encountering failure means you’re challenging yourself. It means you’re brave.
Ally’s teacher, Mr. Daniels, is patient, kind, and determined to help Ally. Did anyone in your real life inspire this character?
Unlike many other authors, I was not a reader and writer as a child. In fact, I was in the lowest reading group from first grade to sixth grade. My fifth grade teacher did not ask me for assignments — something most kids would think is reason for celebration. However, I knew what it meant: He thought it didn’t matter if I did my work or not. By the time I reached the summer before sixth grade, I was frightened about what would become of me.
And then I met Mr. Christy, my sixth grade teacher. He did many things to buoy me including giving me books that most teachers would think were too hard for me and being interested in my true opinions of them. He arranged for me to tutor younger kids in math. And, it may seem like a small thing, but he smiled when I walked in into the room. This all made a huge impression on me. By seeing the child before the student and setting high expectations — and demanding that I strove to reach them — he changed my life by changing my perception of myself.
Fish in a Tree is a giant thank you note to my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Christy. It is also a nod to a few other exceptional teachers that I had such as Bud Rivard, Carol Masonis, and Patricia Yosha. I am living proof that a teacher can change the trajectory of a child’s life.
On the surface, Ally, Keisha, and Albert may seem like unlikely friends — but a recognition and embracing of their differences unites them and ultimately allows for them to find commonalities as well. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I just love to hang with people whose lives have been different than mine. I am fascinated by others’ varied stories. Differences are a wonderful thing! How boring it would be if we were all the same. However, I do think it’s very important that, while we stand proud of our own differences, we also look for common ground as well. As humans, we all share commonalities such as longings for love and acceptance.
And here’s the thing about children: I think young readers naturally accept differences in others unless they learn from some external source that differences are bad. Think about it — put kids in the sand box as toddlers and they just play. A smile is their common ground. There is rarely an analysis of differences like adults tend to do. My hope is that adults can work toward this as well.
Why is art so important in both Ally’s life and the story?
Well, I knew that I wanted her to have a creative gift and I have always wanted to be able to draw, so I lived a dream a bit in creating Ally. In addition, through my research of people with dyslexia, I found that many of them have a talent for creating art (and playing chess, which is also in the book) so it made sense.
The final reason — and the most compelling from a writer’s point of view — is that I just felt it. Very early in the writing process, I began to feel who Ally is at her core. I could have made a very cerebral decision that she was going to be a metal sculptor, but I would not have been able to write that authentically because I could feel that it would not be important to her. Color, though … I knew that Ally loved to create drawings filled with color. I saw them in my head as “mind movies,” just like she does.
One central theme of the book is that it can be harmful to teach kids that they are defined, or measured by, any one thing — like judging a fish for not being able to climb a tree. How does Ally learn this important lesson?
I think Ally learns this lesson the way many of us learn lessons about ourselves — by the mirrors that the people we care about hold up in front of us. At the beginning of the book, Ally feels like her differences make her a failure but through interactions with her mom, Mr. Daniels, Albert, Keisha, Oliver, Suki, and others, she learns that differences are to be celebrated. She learns that we all have our struggles to bear — it’s part of being human. It isn’t failing that makes you a failure — it’s staying down that does. By the end of the book, Ally’s perceptions of herself shift enough so that she can shake off the negative opinions of others such as Shay.
Lynda Mullaly Hunt (www.lyndamullalyhunt.com) has received many honors for her debut novel, One for the Murphys, which is on over twenty state award lists, including Bank Street’s 2013 Best Books of the Year. Her second novel Fish in a Tree is a New York Times Bestseller, a Schneider Family Book Award winner, a Global Read Aloud selection, an ALCS Notable Book of 2016, has received many state award nominations, and has been published in eleven different languages worldwide. Lynda is a former teacher, and holds writers retreats for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, two children, impetuous beagle, and beagle-loathing cat.