Absolutely Almost - Lisa Graff
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.
I am going to start this review by talking directly to Lisa Graff: Do you purposely write your books just to make me hungry?! It's making it really difficult to diet when I keep reading about cake and donuts and ice cream! Okay, now that I have that out of the way, let's talk about the book.
Albie finds most things in life to be on the difficult side. He's not a natural at math. He finds reading and writing to be a challenge, and his artistic skills aren't quite what we might call "developed." But Albie is still a good kid, and he means well, even if he doesn't quite get it right all the time. Unfortunately, being a good kid didn't let Albie stay at his last school, and with his grades dropping constantly, he has to move to a public school. It's not all doom and gloom, though, as Albie finds friends in peers, teachers, and even a babysitter that he's initially skeptical about.
Albie's best friend, Erlan (pronounced er-LAN) disappears from Albie's life (for the most part) when his family becomes the subject of an online reality television show. But when he goes to his new school, Albie begins to find new friends (some real friends, and some because he is also friends with Erlan.) Albie is truly a fantastic character, fully rounded and, as Betsy Bird notes, he's actually average, unlike so many characters who are supposedly ordinary, but who are actually rather extraordinary. As Betsy notes, regarding other average heroes, "how average are they really? Put another way, would they ever miscalculate a tip?" This ordinariness makes Albie just as appealing, perhaps even more so, than someone to whom things come more easily.
During the course of the novel, Albie ends up going through a few nannies/babysitters, since his parents are not always present in his life (even though it's obvious they're trying.) The babysitter who stars in the novel is Calista. She seems to understand Albie better than most of those around him. She helps him develop his artistic skills, and does her best to help him improve his social skills and increase his emotional maturity. She explains to him that it's okay to feel sad sometimes, and while she doesn't want Albie to lie or be deceptive, she sometimes bends the rules to help him out. Unfortunately this doesn't always work out for the best for her.
The book is, overall, a complex and important piece of fiction for young readers, and I only have a few qualms about it. I did wish that Calista would have been further explored after her departure from the scene, especially in terms of the reaction from Albie's parents. Though readers will be unhappy with Albie's parents, adult readers will understand that the consequences were necessary, even if they do, in some ways, agree with Calista's actions. These are the only things I had any trouble with, though, and I feel the novel does a wonderful job of standing up tall amid the body of juvenile fiction being published.