Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

As a kid I would pretend I was a great athlete or genius. My dad is a genius. Really. He's been tested and his IQ is in the 140s. Of course I can't remember the exact number. I am not a genius. I am average. I didn't go to Harvard like dad. I wasn't a straight A student like dad. I didn't get high scores on college entrance exams. I was plain ole boring ...average. It took me a long time to be okay with that. As a kid, I would deal with it by reading books and vicariously become a superhero through the eyes of the characters. Add in some red-hot action and I was having a yippee-ki-yay time. I remember at times thinking I needed to try harder. Focus more. Be more competitive. I'd chew my nails to nubs trying to sit still and go overboard trying to be the best (which I never was). Albie is a unique character in this book because he isn't just average in school, he's below average. He hopes that it is a disability, but it isn't. He's just not good at subjects in school. He's not too bright at figuring out other people or situations, but he is good-hearted and kind which is where his true powers lie. He doesn't know it but he's the kind of hero that is hard to come by. Lisa Graff pulls off something unique here, a hero of great character but lacking smarts. Check out this book that is bursting with discussions and would make a great read aloud with its short chapters and beautiful writing.

Fifth grader Albie has been kicked out of private school for failing in subjects and is going to a public school. His parents have hired a college-aged nanny, Calista, to take him to school and help with his homework. Albie doesn't really get it that he was kicked out of school for poor performance in the beginning. He realizes it later when he feels like his world is falling apart. He struggles to fit in at school and make friends and his parents give him a tough time for not being good in school. The nanny helps him deal with all these issues, but she's a kid herself. She does a kind thing for Albie, but it is also irresponsible and the fallout leaves many unhappy.

Albie is biracial. His mom is Korean and his dad's ethnicity isn't given. While Albie doesn't explore what this means, the author draws on some Korean customs that add to the flavor of the setting. When Albie brings kimchi to lunch and doesn't take it out, I laughed. This spicy Korean dish is a staple in their diet and its distinct odor would definitely draw unwanted attention to Albie from the bully, Darren. While most of the Asian backdrop is spot on, I did wonder about Albie's Korean grandfather giving up on Albie. It didn't jive with the Asian parents I've interacted with at our school. They'd hire more tutors and tell Albie to work harder. They wouldn't give up. Of course Albie's mom explained that Gramps was a grump. He's obviously an exception and the reader isn't privy to why he acts this way.

Albie's parents desperately want him to do better in school. Dad tries to shame Albie into improving his spelling scores, while mom does it with his reading log. Shaming never motivates kids but so many adults resort to it because they don't know differently. Constructive criticism that focuses on progress is something that is not easy to do if you've never been exposed to it. The dad says that only an A is acceptable and the mom wants him to read "Johnny Tremain" over "Captain Underpants." As a librarian I see adults taking away children's reading choices all the time. Usually they are trying to make them better readers and push them. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect on most children by turning them off to reading completely. It is not easy nurturing positive reading habits and sometimes adults have to interfere. But if the goal is to make reading a part of a child's life, then adults need to nurture the joy of reading and that starts with helping them find books that interest them. It works best for me if I have a stack of eight or more books that I quickly summarize for the kid then let them choose the one that grabs their interest.

At times the parents are too concerned with how Albie makes them look versus looking at what is best for Albie. Oftentimes parents project too much of themselves onto their children and do not let them be themselves. Albie's mom wants him to run for a school office because she was treasurer in school. When Albie says he isn't interested she doesn't want to hear it. Being a parent isn't easy. Sometimes kids need to be encouraged. Other times parents go overboard. Albie has loving parents that not only misstep, but give good advice as well. Albie's mother is crushed when she finds out he doesn't have a disability. After this climax, she seems to except Albie's academic shortcomings and not push him so much. When Albie's dad buys him the same birthday present (I've done that to my dad before), Albie is so disgusted he tosses the plane out his 8 story bedroom window. When Albie's dad teaches him how to make the family recipe of delicious grilled cheese sandwiches, he tells Albie that he won't have problems getting what he wants in life, but figuring out what he wants. Albie appreciates the support. When Albie comforts his mom and Calista he shows how deep his kindness runs. He is forgiving and gentle. Parents, nannies, teachers are trying to do the best they can for Albie and sometimes they shine and sometimes they fall short. This message that adults make mistakes just like kids adds depth and authenticity to the character development.

Friendships can be tricky like parenting. Albie's best friend is Erlan who goes to Albie's previous school. The two remain friends and Erlan likes that Albie always treats him "normal." Albie gets bullied at his new school by Darren. He makes friends with Betsy, a girl who stutters, and Albie is kind to her when others pick on her. When Darren thinks Albie is going to be on television because of Erlan's family being in a reality show, he makes friends with him. The nanny, Calista, tries to warn Albie to be careful of Darren's motivations. She doubts Darren's sincerity at being a friend, but Albie is too kind to understand that Darren might want something in return. Darren convinces Albie not to be friends with Betsy because it isn't "cool." Albie finds out the hard way that friendships are not based on a set of rules, but on acceptance. He deals with Darren's meanness by deciding what words hurt and how to smooth out their edges. Albie stays true to Erlan as a friend, but he blows it with Betsy. He makes amends and learns from it, just like the adults.

Calista is caring and kind, but misguided in her good intentions. Like everyone else in this story, she makes mistakes too. When she acts irresponsibly by lying to Albie's parents even though her intentions were good, any adult with a kid is going to understand Albie's mother's actions. But kids are going to think his mother was horribly unfair. What they don't know is how the situation could have been easily handled with a phone call. A nanny's top priority is to ensure the safety and trust of the parents. If that is violated, then they have shown they are not up to handling the responsibility of taking care of a younger child. Albie's mom didn't really have a choice.

The theme of accepting yourself is a powerful one. Albie is a great kid that learns his worth. He's "absolutely almost" certain of it. He's okay with who he is. Are you?

5 Smileys

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