Lisa Graff has written several books for middle grade readers, including the National Book Award nominee A Tangle of Knots. Graff has an uncanny ability to give a simple story an intensity that makes you want to keep turning the pages. In her latest offering, Absolutely Almost, 11-year-old Albie is struggling with the idea that he should be “better” than he is: better at math, better at spelling, better at being cool. We asked Graff a few questions about Albie, writing and fitting in.
The narrator in Absolutely Almost sounds exactly like a fifth-grade boy. How did you find that authentic voice?
I never write a single word of a new book until I can completely hear the voice of the main character and have worked out the entire first chapter in my head. I’d been mulling over Albie’s character for some time, when it suddenly solidified while I was on vacation at the Jersey Shore. The next morning, I got up at the break of dawn, grabbed my beach chair and wrote the first two chapters longhand in a journal with the waves lapping at my feet. Those two chapters remained in tact nearly word for word through every revision.
I’m never quite sure where a character’s voice comes from. I spend a lot of time visiting schools all over the country to talk about writing, and I love meeting students and hearing from them about whatever they want to talk about. So that sort of thing keeps your toes in the water, so to speak. But sometimes the voices really seem to leap out at you from nowhere. That was the case with Albie.
When you were a kid, did you ever struggle in school like Albie? Or did you ever feel like you didn’t measure up to expectations of you?
I was one of those kids who’s built to excel at school. I looked forward the first day of school more than summer vacation, I had panic attacks if for some reason I was unable to complete a homework assignment—I was that “a pleasure to have in class” kid. But I feel like all of this was due less to innate intelligence and more to sheer willpower. My older brother, Ryan, is a literal genius (I, for the record, am not). And while no one else ever seemed to expect me to live up to his level of smarts, I put a lot of pressure on myself and was always struggling to prove myself academically. I probably had some sort of complex about it, to be honest, and it took me a long time to stop trying so darn hard all the time. On a positive note, I am still really good at making deadlines!
Albie’s parents seem to be both loving and distant, understanding but clueless, supportive and demanding. Is Albie giving them more credit than they are due?
At first Albie simply assumes that whatever his parents do is the best, most “parenty” thing—because they’re his parents, so why wouldn’t they love him and support him? And I think Albie’s parents do truly care about his well-being, but unfortunately, they don’t always seem to understand what makes him tick, so their hopes and dreams for Albie often come into direct conflict with what might be the best thing for him. By the end of the novel I think they come around a bit, although they clearly have a long way to go.
"Albie is slower than most kids in a lot of ways, and I wanted to explore what that would be like for him in a world that constantly expects him to be smarter, faster, better than he is."
Albie’s nanny, Calista, is an important part of his life and a driving character in the story. It felt so unfair that his mother dismissed her! What made you decide to put that in the story? Why is it that Albie could not defend her?
I knew eventually Calista would have to leave Albie’s life, because he needed to be able to prove to himself and the reader that he could stand on his own two feet without her. I liked the idea that she’d be dismissed in a way that didn’t feel entirely black-and-white—Albie’s mother truly feels that she’s doing the right thing by her child in letting Calista go, and it’s hard to blame her for that. I wanted Albie to have to grapple with something that was both painful and slightly outside his realm of comprehension, so he could come to learn that even though things don’t always turn out the way we’d like—or even in ways we fully understand—we can still come out the other side as stronger people.
The name origins of both Albie and Calista contain metaphors that can be related to the characters—was that on purpose? How do you pick your character’s names?
Some names pop into my head with the character, and others take a bit of auditioning. Albie was one of the ones that came right away. His full name is Albin, but at one point a friend of his mother’s insists that he must be named after Albert Einstein, and for a kid who’s constantly worried about his own intelligence, that seemed like such a huge hurdle to put in front of him, which I liked.
I wasn’t sure what to name Albie’s nanny at first, so I tried on a couple names for size. Calista was the one that finally stuck, because to me the name felt artsy and unique but also like someone who was very strong and knew what she wanted out of life.
Albie and his friends excel at all kinds of things not related to school. Do you think we place too much emphasis on academic success in our society?
I’d go even further and say that we put an extreme emphasis not just on academic performance but on intelligence itself. That’s not to say that intelligence isn’t an important trait—because I very much think that it is—but it’s not the only thing that makes a person matter, and I think we often forget that.
When I first began working on the book, one of the things that really struck me was when I would describe the premise to friends as being about a boy who was not very smart, and so many of them would respond with shock. “You mean, he’s not traditionally smart?” they’d ask me. Or, “You mean, he doesn’t do well in school?” Well, yes, that’s what I meant, but also more. Albie is slower than most kids in a lot of ways, and I wanted to explore what that would be like for him in a world that constantly expects him to be smarter, faster, better than he is. In a world like that, where does a kid like Albie fit? How does he find his own worth? People honestly seemed flummoxed that I was suggesting there were kids in the world who weren’t as smart as other ones. But there are those kids; they very much exist; and just by virtue of not being quite as intelligent in most ways as their peers, they are not without value. And they are just as deserving, in my opinion, of their own stories.
You teach a course in Children’s Literature at McDaniel College. What are some of your favorite writers that you share with your students?
It’s such a challenge every year to find eight books with which I can cover everything from picture books to YA, graphic novels to nonfiction, funny to heartwrenching storytelling. I’m constantly changing the list to try and find perfect the mix. Two of the novels that have garnered amazing discussion from year to year are Patricia McCormick’s Sold and Kevin Henkes’ Kitten’s First Full Moon. I’m always astonished at what fabulous lessons students pull from such short, beautiful books. Last year I added Adam Gidwidtz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm, and that was such a good one for exploring tone and word choice and humor. This year I’m adding Coe Booth’s Tyrell to the list, and I’m very excited to discuss it in part because Coe is an old friend of mine from our New School days. I got to watch that novel grow from its infancy, so it’s going to be a real treat to get to teach it. It’s also a downright stupendous book!
If you could define for kids what “cool” should be, what would you tell them?
I wonder if anyone ever actually thinks of him- or herself as cool. I’m constantly surprised to discover that people I thought of as being the epitome of cool in high school felt just as gangly and unwieldy as I did. Perhaps that’s why it seems like “cool” isn’t really a label you can give yourself.
I guess if I got the opportunity to be the Webster’s Dictionary of redefining “cool” for small, impressionable children, I would want to tell them that the coolest thing you can be is happy. When you’re happy with yourself, and comfortable with who you are, that’s when other people begin to like you the most, and even look up to you. Nothing else is half so important as being happy to be you. It’s not exactly a new thought, but it’s a lesson that takes a long time to sink in.
Jennifer Bruer Kitchel is the librarian for a Pre-K through eighth level Catholic school.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of this book.