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Lisa Graff’s Absolutely Almost (2014) is a middle-grade novel about self-acceptance and recognizing one’s own worth. The story follows 10-year-old Albie’s journey along this path. Albie has never been the best at anything, especially anything to do with school. He continually falls short of others’ expectations, especially his parents’. However, his new nanny, Calista, sees him differently—and gradually, she helps Albie discover his strengths and take pride in himself.
Graff is an American writer who pens stories for children and teens. Her work has appeared on numerous state lists, has garnered a National Book Award nomination, and has been named Amazon’s best books of the year multiple times. Absolutely Almost was also named an NCTE Charlotte Huck Honor Book and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year.
Told through the eyes of its protagonist, Albin “Albie” Schaffhauser, Absolute Almost comprises numerous short chapters, each encapsulating a single incident or recollection—occasionally, a short series of related events—with the chapter title highlighting its most significant takeaway. The book explores multiple themes relevant to the life of a middle-schooler, most notably the ideas of identity and self-esteem, parental expectations, and the true nature of friendship. This guide is based on the 2015 Puffin Books edition.
Ten-year-old Albie has never been the best at anything. In particular, he struggles with academics and similar tasks. This leads to Albie’s school, Mountford Prep, asking him to leave, much to his parents’ consternation. The story begins in the summer before his fifth-grade year, for which Albie will start at a new school, P.S. 183.
The summer brings other changes and new beginnings as well. Albie is to have a new nanny, Calista. Although Albie is initially resistant to the idea of someone his age having a nanny, and is consequently rude to her, he eventually warms to Calista, owing to her unconventional ways. She is warm and accepting of Albie, and she is the first person to think of him as smart. Also during that summer, film shooting begins at Albie’s best friend Erlan Kasteev’s place; Erlan’s family is having a reality show made about them, and Erlan will soon become TV-famous.
On his first day of school, Albie befriends a girl named Betsy—this earns him the mocking attention of Darren, the most popular boy in class, as Betsy has a stutter and is shunned by everyone else. However, Albie doesn’t care about this; Betsy is kind to him, helps him out when he gets confused with tasks, and shares gummy bears with him.
The school year moves along without much ado. Albie’s new teacher, Mrs. Rouse, signs him up for math club, which is run by a math teacher, Mr. Clifton. While initially skeptical of the club, Albie soon enjoys the sessions in which the mixed-age group of children play math games. He also receives positive comments on his reading log from Mrs. Rouse. However, he struggles with the weekly spelling tests.
Despite Albie’s progress, his parents are unhappy with his performance. After a parent-teacher conference, Dad expresses his disappointment with Albie’s grades and demands perfect scores on his spelling tests; Mom, in turn, wants Albie to read at a higher level than what he is currently. On the advice of the school counselor, Mom even has Albie tested for dyslexia and is disappointed when the results show that Albie does not have this learning disorder.
All these expectations weigh heavily on Albie. Calista helps him in different ways; along with helping him study for his weekly tests, she does fun things with him, including teaching him how to draw comics and taking him to the bodega below his apartment to eat donuts every day. Despite this, Albie becomes increasingly insecure and more desperate to be good at something—and this leads him to welcome Darren’s sudden friendly overtures when Darren discovers Albie’s friendship with Erlan, who is going to be on TV.
Albie’s temporary stint with the popular kids in school ends up alienating Betsy, with whom he is not allowed to interact because she is not “cool.” However, when the pilot episode of Erlan’s TV show eventually airs, Albie does not appear in it, as Dad refused to let him be filmed; Darren and his friends now think Albie is lying about his friendship with Erlan, and Albie becomes a social outcast overnight. He is continually mocked by Darren, who even ruins Albie’s birthday celebrations at school; in addition to this, his birthday dinner at home goes badly. Dad gives Albie a model airplane, forgetting that he had already bought the same model for Albie almost two years ago; Albie had been waiting for Dad to help him build it, something Dad had promised back then.
Albie is hurt and upset by the different things going on at home and at school, and he confides in Calista, who lets him skip school for a day. Later, when Albie’s teacher asks for a note for his missed day, Albie forges his mom’s signature so that Calista won’t get in trouble. However, his mom finds out, and Calista gets fired.
Albie is distraught about Calista leaving; nevertheless, things slowly improve for him again. A new girl, Darissa, joins math club, and Albie befriends her. Mr. Clifton gives Albie some advice that helps him deal with Darren’s bullying and keep trying in school. Betsy and Albie also repair their friendship when Albie takes the blame for something she does in retaliation against Darren’s bullying. With Betsy’s help, Albie’s spelling test grades improve, and he receives an all-time high grade of a B. Albie also discovers a parting gift that Calista left for him: illustrations of a superhero whom Albie had created as a representation of himself, “Donut Man,” with a note about how Donut Man’s superpower is kindness. Albie’s different experiences lead to him finally begin accepting himself as he is, and the story ends with him acknowledging his own worth.