Flashback, 1970s. Ally can't read, doesn't have friends, and hates school. She falls in with other oddballs, Keisha, the only black girl in the class, and Albert, who is obsessed with Star Trek, the original series. The problem with this problem novel? It's not set in the 1970s. The true problem? This is yet another one of those books where the author is exercising some personal demons by writing a "fictional" novel which is clearly autobiographical (which Ms. Hunt openly admits to in the end-notes). This is a personal beef, but I really dislike it when real life is disguised as fiction. In my mind, it creates stories which are flat, or idealized, or simply unrealistic. "Fish in a Tree" hit the trifecta. First, it goes through chapter after chapter of Ally, the main character, feeling awful. At first, you want to have sympathy, but after a while, I really wanted the story to move forward (at 266 pages, it is far longer, IMHO, than it needs to be). The mean girls are mean, the oddball kids are odd, but there is little fleshing out -- the author may have seen these characters in her mind because she experienced them, but it didn't translate onto the page. Shay, the ultimate mean girl, has all the dimension of a mustachioed villain from a 1920s silent film. Or any character from a CW TV show. The one Asian character, Suki, is as stereotypical as it comes, right down to "honoring Grandfather" and her pigeon English. The ending is all flower and roses, like any after-school special from 1973 -- everything works out just great and goodness wins. The biggest distraction for me, however, was the setting. There are brief references to technology -- information is occasionally Googled and, in the end, Dad is Skyped, but by and large, this didn't feel like a contemporary story. No one has a cellphone and cyberbullying doesn't make any kind of showing. There is Albert's obsession -- it's hard to believe a kid with few resources would know of Star Trek, the original series, much less be watching it on television (as a confirmed Trekkie, I can promise you it only came back to cable very, very recently, thanks to the new films, and would be hard to find in a small-town setting) and the whole school structure seems dated. A kid shows up with bruises every day and Social Services isn't called immediately? Lastly, every mention of Albert's black t-shirt with white lettering saying "Flint" confused me. He explains it as a Star Trek reference, and it is eventually used as as a Science gag, but how could you have a character in 2016 wear a shirt like that and not be referencing Flint, Michigan, and the racial struggles epitomized there?
Here is what I wish -- that Ms. Hunt, Mr. Gantos, and all the other authors who have written these pseudo fiction tales would just own up and write a real memoir -- for kids. Who says that young people can only digest a story if it is fictionalized? Who says young people can't understand the power of a personal narrative when it comes to life struggles? The issues Dyslexic kids face is very real, and haven't we learned that being open and honest with people is the best way to tell a story? This is another one of those books written for adults, who, with our bleeding hearts, will hand it out to every kid we think "needs" it. Sadly, most of those kids who might benefit from the story won't be able to read this lengthy tome. Maybe next time, authors like this can write something real.