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'Absolutely Almost' by Lisa Graff: Compelling middle grade fiction

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Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

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"Absolutely Almost" by Lisa Graff is a touching, sympathetic book about a boy who struggles for acceptance by those around him: his parents, his classmates and his teachers. Graff's writing and first person narrative clearly show the main character's inability to cope with much of what's expected of him while engendering sympathy from the reader.

It's about Abie, a boy who is not good at much. He is beginning at a new school in New York at the start of the book because he got kicked out of his private school. The reader quickly gets the idea that Abie is slow. He doesn't "get" what other kids his age (ten) get.

He is abysmal at math. He tips the delivery person wrong every week that his family orders Chinese food. Either he gives way too much or too little. He ends up in "math club" at school instead of regular math, but he doesn't realize that it's a special math class for kids who need extra help.

While Abie's parents don't understand him, he has a best friend who lives down the hall in their apartment building, and his newest babysitter, Calista, an art student, really understands him and manages to help him emotionally.

What Abie loves are donuts, and there is a drawing of donuts at the beginning of each chapter. Some chapters are only one page, but the titles of the chapters are important.

This isn't an action-filled book; rather, it's a book that needs to be talked about, discussed and dissected. Abie is a great character because he's complex. Although he's not clever in many ways, he is sensitive and perceptive. He's a good friend, and he's persistent when he wants to do something.

Graff draws a clear picture of a fifth-grade bully who makes Abie's life miserable for a while. While Graff does show some coping strategies that Calista and Abie's math teacher help him with, it's clear that the sting of the nastiness still hurts.

This book combined with Spinelli's "Loser" would be a great unit for fourth or fifth graders working on friendship and kindness. In both stories there are kids who are different and are treated as outsiders. What makes "Absolutely Almost" special is that it's written in first person narrative, which makes the readers feel closer to Abie. The reader will "get" that which is confusing to Abie. And one can hope that it will engender feelings of sympathy and compassion.

It's a story that should be required reading for anti-bullying groups, and teachers will want to have in their classroom library. It would be a great fourth or fifth grade read aloud.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Philomel, for review purposes.

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