I really wanted to like Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff. I liked one of her previous novels, A Tangle of Knots, so much I selected it for my 4th and 5th grade book club and it was one of the kids’ favorite books. It also was long-listed for The National Book Award. A Tangle of Knots is a quirky book that requires you to pay attention. The characters’ stories are truly woven around one another and there’s fun climax where all the ends come together. In truth, I’m not sure all my kids got all the subtle hints to the “untangling,” but it didn’t bother them. We had a good discussion (that veered off into lots of tangents) and they enjoyed the story and the characters.
So I’m a bit disappointed by Absolutely Almost. In many ways it can be compared to Wonder by R.J. Palacio or Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. The protagonist is a kid with a problem. (Truth be told, there are many such novels, but that just proves there’s a formula at work here.) Auggie, the hero of Wonder, has severe facial deformities. Melody, in Out of My Mind, has cerebral palsy. Graff’s Albie seems to be developmentally disabled in some way
I say in some way, because we don’t really know what’s “wrong” with Albie. His dad thinks he doesn’t study enough. His mom wonders if he may be dyslexic (he's not). He’s extremely naïve for his age and, well, just not very bright. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And none of that makes him unlikable, but there's just not much story to tell. The conflict is Albie trying to make his way in life. He must leave his private school (he doesn’t meet its high standards) and transfer to a public school. His parents are distracted and don’t have enough time for them, but he has a very caring young adult nanny (in the role Auggie’s sister plays in Wonder). In his new school he meets the requisite bullies, makes a friend, loses said friend when he tries to get in with cool kids (who are just using him), and there’s a somewhat happy ending as Albie and his family learn to accept him just as he is.
There’s almost a good story in here. Albie is likable, but boring. And I’m sure kids who liked Wonder and want a book like it, will find in Albie another hero – another kid doing his best and trying to fit in. I just expected more from Graff.