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Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Early/Young Readers, Middle Grade Readers, Read-Aloud Suggestions, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

ABSOLUTELY ALMOST by Lisa Graff

absolutely almost

When Albie’s mother is at home for bedtime she always tucks him in (although he knows he’s technically too old for that), kisses him and says:

“I love you Albie.”

“You do?”

“Yep.  You are caring and thoughtful and kind.”

His mother’s description is the perfect summary of Albie’s personality.  He has a lovely innocence to him, an open and loving heart.  This very willingness to believe the best of everyone also makes Albie vulnerable to teasing and bullying and being hurt by others.

Absolutely Almost is the story of Albie.  Albie lives in New York with his parents and is going into the 5th grade in a new school.  As the story begins, we overhear Albie’s grandfather telling his mother:  “Not everybody can be the rock at the top of the pile….There have to be some rocks on the bottom, to support those on the top.”  Albie is starting a new school because after receiving a letter from the private school he was attending his parents told him he would now go to PS 183.

Albie tells us:  “My whole life, I’ve always been an almost.”  He struggles to make change for the Chinese Take-out Delivery, he can’t seem to get more than 4 out of 10 words correct on his spelling tests and his mother tells him the Captain Underpants books he’s reading–and enjoying!–are for babies.  Then a new after-school (not) babysitter named Calista arrives and seems to understand Albie.  She helps both create and see clearly the wondrous moments and abilities he already has.

When his best friend moves and a boy Albie thought was his friend begins to call him names and harass him at school Albie is overwhelmed.  A kind teacher coaxes Albie into telling him what is going on.  After his conversation with the teacher Albie ponders what his teacher has told him, weighing that against how he feels.

On my way back to class, I thought about what Mr. Clifton said.  I wasn’t sure he was right, that I got to decide what words hurt me.  Because some words just hurt. 

It did hurt when I said it in my head, no matter what Mr. Clifton had told me.  That word dummy poked me in the brain, in the stomach, in the chest, every time I heard it.

Dummy.

Albie’s story is our story.  He wants to feel special and successful, to feel he belongs and to have his parents proud of him.  Like us he has moments of triumph and moments of pain.  With the help and love of his parents, Calista and many other new friends Albie makes progress in his studies at school and is beginning to form an identity for himself of which he can be proud.

…I knew what Dad would probably say if he saw it, that even if a B was almost an A, that almost wasn’t good enough.

But I knew something else too.

You couldn’t get where you were going without knowing where you’d been.

And you couldn’t be anywhere at all without having been almost there for a while.

The way in which Albie navigates his bully situation is admirable and genuine.  Those who have been victims of bullying will easily recognize  the mixed feelings of guilt and fear that go along with those ordeals.  But Albie also models a growing insight into his own worth–which is the key to surviving and even thriving despite the cruelty of others.

This is a great read-aloud for a middle to upper elementary classroom or as an independent reading choice.  The structure of the book lends itself to avid and reluctant readers alike because the chapters are short and read quickly.  I zoomed through the book in two days–often losing track of time.  My only complaint about Absolutely Almost is that I felt the ending too abrupt.  I finished reading a page, turned it and discovered that was the last page in the story!  I was therefore left vaguely dissatisfied after a spectacular reading experience up to that point.  Albie’s light, though, continues to shine for me, even after I finished Absolutely Almost.

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