Albie is a fifth grader living in NYC, a boy who is almost good at many things. Almost, but not quite. Albie regularly miscalculates the tip for the man who delivers his Chinese food. Albie only wants to read Captain Underpants, not the more literary books written for fifth graders. Albie struggles with his spelling list each week. Albie also possesses one of the kindest, most compassionate, most sincere hearts recently depicted in children's literature. He knows that he doesn't live up to his parents expectations and that the cool kids in school ridicule him. Albie's best friend still attends his former school, leaving Albie to forge his own way this school year. All of these regular life struggles form a story of a simple boy endeavoring to find his way during the oft-turbulent pre-teen years.
Absolutely Almost provides an interesting narration for today's middle grade reader: the plight of the average child. Albie is not really good at anything. He's not a stellar student; he doesn't have any outstanding hobbies. He is kind and compassionate, but those traits are often overlooked in the search for a tangible talent. His parents are not particularly understanding and often push him to "do better". As a parent of 4 myself, Albie's perspective of his parents demands, even their relative lack of involvement in his education and the detail of his days, resonated heavily with me. Albie's new babysitter, Calista, appears to be his savior, and while most kids reading this novel will fall in love with her, I found her sugar-enabling, school-skipping, Peter Pan-type behavior to be a bit over the line. That said, she is sympathetic toward Albie in a manner he desperately needs, and she frequently points out life truths that help him along the way. One of my favorite exchanges between them occurs while they are discussing the fact that Albie may never find something in life that he's good at:
"I want to be something I'm good at." [Albie] said.
Calista...looked more serious than normal. "You should do something because you love it, not just because you're good at it."
"But you're good at art, and you love it." [Albie] told her.
She nodded. "Did you ever think maybe the love part comes first? Find something you want to keep doing forever, even if you stink at it. And then, if you're lucky, with lots of practice, then one day you won't stink so much."
"But what if I'm not lucky?" [Albie] asked her. "What if I do find something I love, and then I always stink at it?"
Calista smiled her thoughtful smile. "Then won't you be glad you found something you love?"
Albie's struggle does not reach a tidy conclusion by the end of the novel. Although Albie does have a better sense of self, I could easily see Albie's story being open for a sequel. Either way, Albie will leave many children identifying with his plight and even more children rooting for his success.