Poor Albert seems doomed to dullness until his fairy-godmother–like grandmother shows up to give him the “chocolate-cherry-ripple” birthday of his dreams.
Albert’s stick-in-the-mud parents don’t do noise or mess. But Albert longs for something more than “extremely ordinary,” and with fellow explorer Grandma Z, adventures ensue, both mystical (bird-watching while soaring through the sky) and mundane (a wild roller-coaster ride) until Albert arrives home changed. The illustrations open on Albert’s dreary, black-and-white, composed home. Grandma brings touches of blue and glaring orange into the tight gray pencil drawings, the pages becoming riotously colorful and the drawings looser and gauzier. Albert metamorphoses too, from somber boy in black-tie to a cheery, sketchily lined, Quentin Blake–esque child, all with help from some not-so-subtle butterfly imagery. Ultimately, though, the story feels flat. The magic is too subtle and doesn’t always feel like wish fulfillment—readers glimpse the sleeping dragon under the “curiosity shop” but Albert settles for merely touching a tooth. Some jaunts, such as foraging for “Dead Man’s Bells” or “teaching Icelandic horses how to can-can” are weirdly esoteric. Albert never leads but passively follows the enigmatic Grandma Z, making the constant reassurances that he “never felt ordinary again” feel strangely hollow. There’s no hint that Albert will seize his destiny and lead his own exploits; he’s left waiting for Grandma’s next visit.
It’s a likable-enough tale that never quite transforms into something magical. (Picture book. 4-8)