Welcome to the ninth installment of Brightly’s Book Club for Kids, where we help young readers find engaging stories to enjoy together! This month’s book is perfect for the “back to school” season. Fish in a Tree, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, is an emotionally charged story that captures the ups and downs of school, friendships, and the search for identity experienced by tweens and young teens. This is one of those brilliant books that leaves us better than it found us — with greater empathy and a larger appreciation of ourselves and others.
This Month’s Selection
Best For: Kids ages 8 – 13, but the book is relevant for older teen readers, too.
What It’s About: Sixth grader Ally Nickerson has always dreaded school. She’s been called “dumb” and “loser” by her fellow students and considered a troublemaker by her teachers. She’s great at math and art but she’s never let anyone know her darkest secret: She can’t read. Everything changes when she gets a new teacher, Mr. Daniels, and befriends two other misfits at school, Keisha and Albert. Mr. D realizes that Ally has dyslexia and helps her learn to read and see the value of her creative mind. Her new friends help her realize there’s a lot more to people than first meets the eye. This is an emotional and uplifting story about celebrating the uniqueness in everyone.
Major Themes: Appreciating our differences, overcoming adversity, friendship, bullying, dyslexia and learning differences, teacher/student relationships
Why We Picked It: Fish in a Tree is a perfect book to read during the “back to school” season when kids, parents, and teachers are all dealing with the adjustments of a new school year. This book touches on many everyday challenges that kids (and adults) face, like dealing with “mean kids,” feeling different from your peers, and figuring out how to persevere when things are hard. The power of friendship, the role of teachers, and the need for grit are inspiring and practical messages. Fish in a Tree would also be a great class read-aloud for teachers at the beginning of the school year.
This story is particularly relevant for kids who have reading difficulties or learning differences. Reading this book together as a group, or listening to the audiobook version independently, is a great way to share this book with readers who might not be able to tackle it on their own; it can also spark a conversation about learning challenges and strategies for overcoming them.
Suggestions for Younger Readers: Are your readers a little too young for this book? Try these great picture books that address friendship challenges and learning differences for younger readers:
What You’ll Need for Book Club
You’ll need the book, DIY decorations, book-themed snacks, our printable discussion questions (see below), and access to the Internet.
- Inspirational Motto Signs: There are lots of inspirational mottos referenced in this story like “Be Yourself” and “Never Never Never Give Up.” Draw a poster with your favorite mottos or go digital and use cool fonts and backgrounds with a free design tool like Canva.
- “Great Minds Don’t Think Alike” Badge or Poster: Download this image to create “Great Minds Don’t Think Alike” badges and wear them during book club and beyond. Use clear tape and a safety pin to turn a simple printout into a wearable badge as shown here.
- Celebrate “Different” Thinkers: Mr. Daniels mentions several famous people with dyslexia like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Walt Disney. Print out pictures of the famous people or people in your life that have dyslexia and display them on your walls. Here’s a link to a list of famous “dyslexic achievers.”
- Keisha’s Secret Message Cupcakes: My mouth was watering when Keisha described her homemade cupcakes. Try making your own cupcakes filled with secret messages with these instructions. Or, replicate these “fish-tree” cupcakes the author made for the Fish in a Tree book release party.
- Words with Cookies: Spell out powerful words with cookies. Here’s a simple recipe for alphabet cookies or keep it super easy and pick up a box of letter cookies at the grocery store.
- A.C. Petersen Farms’ Ice Cream Sundaes: Skip the baking and enjoy sundaes with scoops of strawberry, pistachio, and black raspberry ice cream like Ally has when she visits the restaurant where her mom works.
The Book Club Discussion
Fish in a Tree forces readers to think about what being “smart” really means and how to embrace, not just tolerate, each other’s differences. As you discuss the book together, think about how each character grows and how they support each other in their own journeys.
- Read the Albert Einstein quote shared by Mr. Daniels: “Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.” What does this quote mean to you? How does it relate to Ally? Why does the author use this as the basis for the book’s title?
- Define and discuss dyslexia. Do you or anyone you know have learning differences like dyslexia? Here is some information and statistics about how prevalent this issue is that may help kids better understand dyslexia. Try reading this passage to experience what it might be like to read with a learning disability. How did you feel? Did you get frustrated or discouraged? Did it make you want to read more or less?
- Bullying is a major theme in the book. Discuss how Ally reacts and why she gets so upset by things Shay says to her and others. How did Ally feel when she was mean to Albert? Why does Albert not stand up to the boys who pick on him? Have you ever been bullied or been a bully to someone else? Discuss how it felt and what you might do differently next time.
- We don’t always know everything that is happening in other people’s lives. Discuss what is happening with Ally and her family that others don’t know and how this impacts her (e.g. her father is away from home and her mother works long hours). How about for Albert (his family can’t pay their bills) or Shay (her mother is harsh to her)? Does knowing these things give you more empathy for how they act at school? What do classmates not know about you?
- Ally compares her being called a “slow reader” to people thinking she is like “a can of soup, and they can just read the list of ingredients and know everything about me.” How do we label each other? How do you label yourself? Discuss how labeling can help us make sense of the world but also limit our view of others and ourselves.
- Discuss the friendship between Ally, Albert, and Keisha. How does their friendship benefit each one of them? What friendships help you be your best self? Contrast their relationship with the friendship between Shay and Jessica.
- What role does Mr. Daniels play in Ally’s development during the story? Share specific examples of things he does to encourage and motivate her. What teachers have had a significant impact on your life? How?
- Ally talks about having a “Silver Dollar” day or a “Wooden Nickel” day. Where do those references come from? What do they mean? What would a Silver Dollar day look like for you? How about a Wooden Nickel day?
- There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of grit and having a “growth mindset.” (Watch this TED talk by Carol Dweck or read about it here.) How does Ally show a growth mindset? Discuss a situation where you have shown a growth mindset and when you have shown a fixed mindset. Why is a growth mindset important in your life?
- Read more about author Lynda Mullaly Hunt and why she wrote this story. Why is this book so important to her?
After the Discussion
- Make Your Own Mystery Boxes: Place random objects from around the house inside old shoeboxes. Exchange boxes and try to guess what is inside each person’s box. Is it harder or easier than you expected? What skills did it take?
- Shaving Cream Vocabulary: Make a list of new vocabulary words. Check out these lists on vocabulary.com for ideas. Use shaving cream to write them out as you say the definition. Or, check out more kinetic spelling activities.
- Custom T-Shirt: Design a T-shirt like Albert’s FLINT shirt to make a statement about who you are. Go hi-tech or just iron on a design.
- Gratitude Letter: Write a thank you letter to a teacher that has made a big impact on your life. Don’t forget to mail it!
- Share Your Secret Talent: What is a talent you have that others (even your family!) might not know about? Have everyone write a secret talent on a piece of paper (no names) and put it in a hat. Take turns drawing out the papers and voting on whose talent it is. You might learn something new about your family or classmate.
- Have a Chess Tournament: Don’t know how to play? Check out these free lesson videos.
- Share Your Voice: Rate and review this book on Bookopolis or Goodreads. A great way to practice reading comprehension and opinion writing.
What to Read Next
Want more stories that tackle issues like friendship and bullying and help build empathy and perseverance? Check out these great titles for different ages and stages of readers.
Older Teens & Adults
Let us know what you think of Fish in a Tree and share your own ideas for Book Club for Kids in the comments below!