Middle Grade Review (with donuts!): Absolutely Almost (2014) by Lisa GraffAbsolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
Published by Penguin on June 12th 2014
Genres: Family, Friendship, Middle Grade, Realistic, Social Issues, Special Needs
Pages: 304
Goodreads
five-stars

From the author of the National Book Award nominee A Tangle of Knots comes an inspiring novel about figuring out who you are and doing what you love. Albie has never been the smartest kid in his class. He has never been the tallest. Or the best at gym. Or the greatest artist. Or the most musical. In fact, Albie has a long list of the things he's not very good at. But then Albie gets a new babysitter, Calista, who helps him figure out all of the things he is good at and how he can take pride in himself. A perfect companion to Lisa Graff's National Book Award-nominated A Tangle of Knots, this novel explores a similar theme in a realistic contemporary world where kids will easily be able to relate their own struggles to Albie's. Great for fans of Rebecca Stead's Liar and Spy, RJ Palacio's Wonder and Cynthia Lord's Rules. (GoodReads)

Suggested age range: 9 and up

Illuminations of Spirituality:

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

Wow. Where do I begin with this one? Lisa Graff’s books are spiritually deep, in my opinion, but they aren’t religious in any way. The protagonist, native New Yorker, Albie, is figuring out who he is in the story, but this isn’t a typical “discovery of one’s identity story.” We watch Albie navigating his struggles in school, making new friends, and dealing with bullies. It’s through his relationships with others that he find authentic connection that ultimately affects the way he sees himself. Calista who watches Albie every day after school is fabulous! She lets Albie use his allowance to buy a donut every day, and donuts are near and dear to Albie’s heart. Just wait for the drawings of Donut Man towards the end of the story! Calista uses the figure of Donut Man to encourage Albie with a valuable message that ends up affecting him in a profound way.

The quote I included at the beginning of this section reflects a word of wisdom Albie receives in the story. We have to start somewhere to get to somewhere else, even if that place doesn’t seem very appealing or much to be proud of. These insightful quotes throughout Graff’s story are like little gems you want to highlight and hold onto.

Who Might Want to Read This Book:

If you read and loved any of Lisa Graff’s other books, like A Tangle of Knots, or books by Jennifer Holm, I think you’ll love this. Many of us know what it’s like to struggle with something, especially when it comes to academics, but how often do authors effectively represent the perspective of a struggling middle grade student? Graff has pulled this off flawlessly in my opinion, and the result is a refreshing and luminous narrative about Albie—honest and kind Albie, who is valuable because of who he is, and not what he can do. This is a good pick for struggling readers, but readers who appreciate an insightful realistic narrative would do well to pick this one up.

The Final Illumination:

As I read this book, it reminded me of how often I judge by appearances without reflecting on what might be going on inside a person. The interesting thing about the story is that we do know what’s going on inside Albie, but those around him often don’t. So WE understand why he acts the way he does, but many of the kids and adults around Albie don’t. It’s a good reminder of the way that people are quick to judge based on outward appearances, but if we take a step back and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we often will respond differently. I loved this aspect of the story–the way it really made me think.

There aren’t a huge number of middle grade books that effectively pull off the perspective of the struggling student. After all, it is an adult author attempting to authentically represent the perspective of a person who is an age that the adult can no longer get back to. However, sometimes an author comes along who is able to do this very well. John Boyne is one who I think pulled it off with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Absolutely Almost is another pick—the adults in the story struggle to understand Albie and his way of thinking and navigating the world, just as Albie attempts to figure out why the people around him act and say things the way they do. Albie is honest and heartfelt, and like many readers, I suspect, I grew to love him as a character, and wanted to share some choice words with the bullies at school who made his life difficult. I cheered for him when things went well, and loved the way his babysitter, Calista, created a superhero just known for liking donuts. This is a humorous and authentic realistic read from Lisa Graff, and you may end up liking Albie just as much as I did.

“I’m Donut Man. I don’t have a superpower. I sure do like donuts, though. Yum!”

If you have a craving for gourmet donuts and you find yourself in Costa Mesa, CA (not the Brooklyn of the book), you should check out Sidecar Donuts. I’ll take a Huckleberry donut and a Madagascar Vanilla Twist!

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five-stars
What Katie Read