“Not everybody can be the rock at the top of the pile. There have to be some rocks at the bottom to support those at the top.”
What if you’re a kid who’s just kind of slow in school? No label, no dyslexia, no dysgraphia, no autism spectrum, no learning disability. School is just hard for you, and you’re almost smart enough to pass your spelling test, almost good at tetherball, almost cool, almost good enough at something to make your parents proud. But not quite.
That’s Albie. I think Lisa Graff has drawn a vivid character sketch of a boy who’s just average, maybe a little below average, in intelligence, but full of heart. Albie isn’t a saint any more than he’s a genius. But his heart is in the right place. He tries to do the right thing—as soon as he figures out what that right thing is. He makes mistakes. He loses a couple of good friends over the course of the story when he does and says things that are not exactly best practice. But Albie is endearing and kind—most of the time.
I wonder what parents and kids and teachers are going to think of this antithesis of the “you are special” message that is so embedded in most middle grade fiction. Albie isn’t really special; he’s kind of an anti-hero, a Napoleon Dynamite, not very good at anything but willing to keep plugging at it anyway. He’s not Leo the Late Bloomer; nor is he the classic middle grade fantasy hero who discovers that he is really a prince in disguise. He doesn’t have a superpower. Albie is just a below average intelligence, untalented, unexceptional kid. Are parents OK with the idea that their kid may be “almost”? Are kids going to want Albie to become something—smarter, stronger, braver, more talented—for them to identify and like him? Are teachers going to be OK with the idea that most kids never will “excel” (otherwise it wouldn’t be excelling, would it?)
Or do we cling to the idea that all the children are above average in Lake Woebegone?
Albie considers what his math teacher told him about the name-calling/bullying he’s enduring:
“On my way back to class, I thought about what Mr. Clifton said. I wasn’t sure he was right, that I got to decide what words hurt me. Because some words just hurt.
It did hurt when I said it in my head, no matter what Mr. Clifton had told me. That word dummy poked me in the brain, in the stomach, in the chest, every time I heard it.
The book has a realistic plot development and conclusion, too. Not everything turns out perfect for Albie. The bullies and cool kids don’t suddenly turn over a new leaf and accept Albie for who he is. Albie doesn’t completely figure out how to deal with the hurt that the other kids kids cause him. He loses a good friend when he and the friend do something that Albie knows is wrong. We never know if his parents, especially his dad, come to have more realistic and compassionate expectations for him. But things do turn out almost, and for Albie, and mostly for his parents, that’s good enough.