Great Minds Don’t Think Alike: Learning Differences in Middle Grade Books

BookendsLynn: Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s new book, Fish in a Tree, introduces us to 6th-grader Ally Nickerson, who is smart, good at math, gifted at drawing, and has a behavior problem. She’s also hiding a painful secret: she can barely read. Words to her look like a “can of alphabet soup dumped on a plate.” She can’t make any sense of the letters even though she tries so hard she gets fierce headaches.

Young readers will will get a real feel
for what it is like to experience dyslexia.

Deeply ashamed of her problem, Ally works equally hard at diversions to distract everyone from discovering her secret. With a father in the military, Ally has been in many schools and managed to elude detection. But it’s getting harder and Fish in a Treeharder and Ally is worried about what her future holds. Then Mr. Daniels enters her life. A gifted young teacher who is working on his special-education degree at night, Mr. Daniels realizes there is something going on with this bright, creative young girl and discovers Ally’s dyslexia. He and Ally work hard and as her reading skills improve, so does her self-confidence. With the help of two young friends, Ally’s world expands and brightens as she grows both in her classroom skills and in her relationships.

Ally is a truly sympathetic character with an authentic and appealing voice. Young readers will will get a real feel for what it is like to experience dyslexia and will root for Ally as she overcomes her disability and triumphs over a mean-girl bully who torments everyone in the class. Hunt makes it clear that Ally has a lot of hard work ahead, but the heartwarming story is one that may further kids’ understanding even as they cheer for the feel-good resolution. Fans of R. J. Palacio’s Wonder will love this book, which is a natural for a classroom read aloud.

Good teachers, and we have legions of
them, know their students.

Rain ReignCindy: While I was reading Fish in a Tree in print, I was listening to the Brilliance Audio production of Rain Reign (2014), by Ann M. Martin. It was an interesting pairing, and both were timely reads this week as my district started a looooong seven-week schedule of state standardized testing that will frustrate many students like Ally and Rain Reign’s Rose, a young girl with Asperger syndrome.

What the people who put such high stock in these tests don’t see is what they do to the students taking them. Good teachers, and we have legions of them, know their students, and like Mr. Daniels see their strengths and their weaknesses, many of which are not measurable on these tests. Like Ally, these students feel that they don’t measure up to the “standards” and many feel they have no hope of ever doing so.

On a field trip to Noah Webster’s house, a docent tells the class that Webster was a visionary for creating the first American spellers and dictionaries. Ally disagrees:

Some visionary. This spelling stuff is all his fault, since he’s the one who got it in his head that we all needed to spell the same way.

I’m thinking Noah Webster was a scoundrel and they should have put him in jail for this.

Jack Gantos may have opened the door to showing students with learning differences through Joey Pigza’s ADHD, but I’m delighted that Joey doesn’t stand alone. These characters let kids know that they are not alone, and encourage others to develop empathy for classmates who think and learn differently. I especially appreciate adult characters like Mr. Daniels and Rose’s Uncle Weldon who are patient and kind and do what’s right for these children.

As Lynn alluded, Ally starts the novel spending more time in the principal’s office than in the classroom. In Rain Reign, audio narrator Laura Hamilton nails the timbre and cadence of Rose’s often grating and persistent nature as she follows her “rules.” I was interested to see how the audio production would deal with Rose’s fascination with homonyms; Hamilton’s spelling out of each homonym broke up the dialogue or sentences but was very effective and easy to follow. Did I mention this is a heart-breaking dog story too? The dog doesn’t die, but you’ll cry anyway.

Both Ally and Rose are characters to cheer for and all teachers will recognize in them students that have come through their classrooms. Add both titles to your “Choose Kind: Wonder Read-Alikes” book lists. As with Shay in Hunt’s novel, we often can’t change the mean-girls, but we can change how we let them affect us.

About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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