Donna Jo Napoli
Illustrated by Jim LaMarche
HMH Books for Young Readers / 32 pages / 1 edition (June 1, 2005)
The great magic of books, especially the best books, is the ability to take readers away, to lift us from wherever we are to wherever the author can imagine. It’s an escape, a necessary break from our daily lives. No one needs that break more than Albert, who somehow never leaves his apartment. Few authors can convey that need as well as Napoli, an author with an amazing understanding of the human animal.
Every day, Albert sticks a hand out the window to test the weather, and every day the weather is just not right for a stroll outside. So, Albert stays in. Every day. One day, though, something improbable and fantastic happens that will change his outlook forever. That day, the outside world will come into Albert’s closed world, in the form of a nesting pair of cardinals. From that moment on, his life becomes the adventure everyone’s should be.
Napoli’s previous books have explored the logical, human aspect of fairy tales. Zel brought out for the first time the motivations of Rapunzel’s keeper and the serious mental toll on the prisoner, herself. Spinners adds a wealth of depth to the often-told, seldom examined, Rumpelstiltskin. Behind every fairy tale is the truth of what its impact would be on actual people. Napoli’s characters become complete and, obviously, imperfect beings — the humans between the lines.
Albert is a fairy tale of the modern age, a cautionary tale of our increasingly insulated world. Through the wordless communication of the birds in his palm, the soft-hearted Albert becomes a tree, a protector, a bird, a home, and a part of the greater world around him. As the impossible escapade ends, he finds his way back to his place in the cosmos. It’s an awakening that many of us need, making the story enlightening and entertaining for readers of all ages. (Don’t worry about the suggested age range; no one will fault you for enjoying this tender classic.)
Words as stirring as Napoli’s deserve equally evocative illustrations and LaMarche’s are a perfect complement. The soft-focus images and injections of jewel-like colour suffuse the bookish Albert with vulnerable humanity. The expressive faces of the cardinals speak volumes, without becoming the whimsical, anthropomorphized characters of Disney films and common cartoons. LaMarche’s work becomes an essential part of the tale, never overwhelming the words on the page. It is a beautiful collaboration of two immense talents.
Some might question the book’s classification, wanting Albert to fit squarely into science fiction or fantasy before they would include the book in this kind of arena. Read Albert and the fantasy is immediately apparent, even to the youngest child.
Unlike many fantasies, it is one we could wish to see lived out. Certainly, it is one we can reflect on and one that can inspire us to widen our own horizons. Take whatever you will from it — it will be your pleasure.