Saturday, June 3, 2017

Absolutely almost by Lisa Graff

My whole life I've been an almost. "Almost, Albie." "Almost."

"You can't get where  you're going without being where you've been." Mr Clifton maths teacher

If you plan to write a book about a kid with learning difficulties, a kid who doesn't fit in, a kid with difficult parents - please read this book and use the beautiful Calista as your model.  Albie is the main character in Absolutely Almost but Calista is the hero. Without her kindness, quiet wisdom, understanding and love of Albie this book would have been unbearable.

Albie is really just a normal kid who struggles with spelling, reading and maths. He also struggles with understanding 'cool kids'. Life is tough in Grade 5 at a new school.  His private school have rejected him due to low test scores. Mum is an overachiever, dad is distant and forgetful. Both of them love Albie but they work long hours and perhaps need to spend more time actually talking with their son.  This task is left to Calista his not-a-babysitter, babysitter.  You will know from the beginning that Calista is a special person. She has a little neon pink section in her hair. Albie knows his mum and dad would not approve of this. He knows they have not seen it.  It is clear Albie and Calista will share a lot of things that his parents might not allow him to do - that he will be allowed to take a few risks.

Albie lives in New York city.  If you know the city you will love all the references to the famous sights, parks, zoos and museums.  Albie is half Korean and lives in a high rise apartment building. Luckily his best friend, Erlan Kasteev, lives on the same floor.  Intriguingly Erlan is a triplet and he has a set of triplet sisters too and his family are participating in a reality television show.

Albie also has a special friend at school.  A girl named Betsy who has a terrible stutter.  Albie likes Betsy, she gives him gummy bears at lunch but really his kindness comes naturally.  "I didn't mind that Betsy didn't talk too much. Because it can be heard sometimes, saying what you mean. And I thought maybe I understood her most of the time anyway."  Albie has such deep authentic empathy.  This book might make you cry but you will also cheer when Albie stands up to the bullies and defends his true friend.

Now some advice.  Before you begin reading this book go out a grab a bag of donuts.  The story is full of donuts and you will find yourself wanting to munch them just as much as Albie.  I read this book all in one sitting.  Yes it is long with 288 pages, but the chapters are short (very short) and the pages will fly through your hands.

You can listen to the first chapter.  Lisa Graff has some teaching ideas and discussion questions on her web site.  You could also read my review of A Tangle of Knots also by Lisa Graff.   Here is an excellent audio interview with the author.

Younger readers might also enjoy Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie For middle primary I recommend Saraha Special, and My name is Will Thompson.   You might also look for books by Andrew Clements because he is also able to perfectly capture life in a Grade 5 class and Blue Balliett because she also has strong themes of empathy in her books especially in Hold Fast.

Other books to read about kids who face up to problems in real life:

Click these quotes to read some reviews :

Life is not going to be easy for Albie, but thanks to the lessons learned here, you’re confident that he’s gonna make it through. Let’s hope other average kids out there at least take heart from that. A hard book to write. An easy book to read.

In a tale about not being good enough, Graff introduces readers to a young hero who struggles to measure up.

... gentle story invokes evergreen themes of coming to appreciate one’s strengths (and weaknesses), and stands out for its thoughtful, moving portrait of a boy who learns to keep moving forward, taking on the world at his own speed. 

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