Friday, November 21, 2014

Absolutely Almost & Just Fine

Lisa Graff, author of A Tangle of Knots, is back with Absolutely Almost (Philomel, 2014), a story about not quite making the grade.

Albie is starting fifth grade in New York City. He’s at a new school where he knows no one. He’s got a new nanny. Even things that should stay the same, like his long friendship with his neighbor Erlan, start changing. 

The universal theme of change would be enough on its own to propel a middle-grade novel. But Graff layers on something more: Albie isn’t the gifted, mini-adult you’ll often find in middle-grade novels with NYC settings. 

(Think Claudia from The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Harriet from Harriet the Spy, or even Theo Tenpenny from this year’s Under the Egg.)

Instead, Albie is never quite good enough. His math skills, or lack thereof, land him in a special small group class. His spelling tests are always rock-bottom. His social prowess gains him one friend (a sweet girl who barely speaks and eats mainly gummy bears). At his new school, Albie is the object of jokes, pranks, and endless taunts.

Midway through Absolutely Almost, I worried that it was turning into a teaching book--teaching us about a learning disability (like Travis’s dyslexia in Bluefish) or a medical condition (like Auggie’s facial difference in Wonder).

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bluefish and Wonder and many other books that explore difference. They put a personal face on what would otherwise be an impersonal label.

I just wanted Albie to be a kid without a label. A kid who isn’t a superstar, who never earns a standing ovation, who just works hard. I wanted him to be what he is—a kid who starts slowly “putting it together,” whether “it” is the many pieces of an A-10 Thunderbolt airplane model or a way to remember spelling words and master math.

Graff doesn’t disappoint, crafting a fine novel that fits my Newbery-worthy Criteria.

Absolutely Almost

# 1 Kept me reading & wanting to turn pages.
# 2 Made me glad that the author was brave enough to show us a character who doesn’t wear labels.
# 3 Contains some moving passages and scenes—primarily with Mr. Clifton, the small-group math teacher, and Calista, the not-totally-trustworthy nanny.

 Absolutely Almost sticks with you, and I’m putting it on my absolutely possible Newbery-winning pile.

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