Picture Books

The Peacocks of Palos Verdes
Mary Jo Hazard, photos by Bryce Lowe-White. Donegal (www.donegalbooks.com), $14.99 (28p) ISBN 978-0-9788128-3-6
Peacocks from California's Palos Verdes peninsula are the eye-catching stars of this square-format paper-over-board volume. Somewhat stodgy in tone, Hazard's rhymed couplets are paired with photos of feathered descendants of a dozen peafowl, which were given as a gift to an area resident in 1916, a foreword explains. Humans and the semidomesticated peacocks now share their community peaceably, as evidenced by images of peacocks sauntering across roads and lawns in residential areas ("They love Palos Verdes where they can be found/ in canyons and neighborhoods roaming around,/ marching through gardens and strutting down streets,/ crying ‘Arrrondt! Arrrondt!' to people they meet"). Lowe-White's most dramatic pictures show the birds perched on tree branches or displaying their exotic plumage at close range, but most seem casually snapped rather than composed. The narrative contains snippets of information about the species' appearance, diet, sleeping habits, and courting and nesting practices. Despite the verse's occasionally clunky rhythms and the varying quality of the photos, it's a cheering portrait of a surprising peacock habitat and interspecies coexistence. Ages 3–6.

Destiny's Purpose
Shannon Cassidy-Rouleau, illus. by Dennis Auth. Big Tent Books (www.bigtentbooks.com), $19.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-60131-064-4
In a palpably affectionate narrative, Cassidy-Rouleau introduces a young alpaca who's the darling of Peter and Nora's herd. "I tell you, he's destined for great things," Peter tells his wife after the animal—named Destiny—is born to an alpaca known for her fleece. But when Destiny contracts alopecia and loses his fleece, his owners' dreams are dashed. Yet his purpose becomes clear when he sounds an alert that saves the other alpacas from wolves and assumes the role of guardian to "less than perfect" newcomers to the herd. The author, who raises alpacas in Ontario, can't resist a couple of plugs for alpaca fleece ("I've heard it's softer than wool and many times warmer," says one of Nora's customers), but the theme of acceptance is delivered gently. Auth's delicately outlined full-bleed watercolors are nicely suited to the bucolic setting, and readers will identify both with Destiny's upset over being cast out from the herd and his growing confidence. Back matter includes details about alpacas and alopecia, as well as a glossary, making this an intriguing insider's look at the animals and a reminder that some talents require looking below the surface. Ages 6–12.

The Seal Pup
James Otis Thach, illus. by Warren Cutler. Bowrider Press (www.thesealpup.com), $24.95 (128p) ISBN 978-0-9825663-0-5
Based on a true story, Thach's (The Tickle Monster Is Coming!) extended narrative poem, composed entirely of rhymed couplets, has a pleasant lilt and an unfaltering rhythm. On an island in the Bering Sea, a seal pup's mother contemplates the annual migration south: "Autumn came, and then it was his mother's turn to fret,/ For soon they would be leaving, and he wasn't ready yet." In the poem's darkest passage, she sets out, carrying the pup in her mouth, and falls prey to a shark. Landing on an ice floe, the pup is joined by penguins who've escaped from the zoo—the first of several supportive creatures he encounters. Thach's text is superimposed on Cutler's sprawling paintings; his subtly shaded seascapes outshine sometimes cartoonish depictions of the animals themselves. The author adds dashes of humor to the verse: when the seal tries to befriend a rubber duck that fell off a cargo ship, "The bird withdrew and turned away, its smile quite unchanged,/ As if too haughty—or too dim—to join in the exchange." The overlong journey is likely to be tackled over multiple readings. Ages 6–12.


The Christmas Gift
R. William Bennett. Burgess Adams (www.rwilliambennett.com), $14.95 (152p) ISBN 978-0-9825606-3-1
Bennett's allegorical novel about spreading goodwill toward men follows the lives of two boys and charts the course of their unlikely friendship. New sixth-grader Scott makes an instant enemy in troubled, oversized Ben, who bullies him in the lunchroom and on the playground. But when Scott tells Ben he's hated by the entire school, the bully is hurt, and this surprising reaction touches Scott. Feeling sorry for the older boy, Scott—at the advice of his father—visits Ben and apologizes, and the two boys become friends. By looking beyond first impressions, Scott sees Ben as a gifted artist with dire health problems who hides his weakness behind mean behavior. Bennett frames this moral tale around a lawyer (the adult Scott, still in possession of Ben's drawings) who is visited by an irate and litigious client. The lesson to pause and closely examine life will resonate with readers of all ages. Ages 12–18.

Juggler in the Wind
Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin. ChironBooks (www.chironbooks.com), $8.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-935178-07-1
Mystery, magic, and mythology collide in this rambling novel, which launches the Wand Bearer trilogy. Narrator Randy, 14, follows voices calling him to the Circus Olympus, which sets up near his Kansas hometown, despite his alcoholic mother's insistence he stay away. Determined to learn the secret of the circus and his mother's aversion to it, Randy joins the troupe—a ragtag bunch of performers who he later learns are thousands of years old—when they leave town, and acquires a sudden talent for juggling. A cloaked stranger with horns and a carved wooden wand appears to Randy on several occasions, apparently in his dreams; eventually Randy passes a life-changing test in a sequence in which the stranger assumes the guises of three threatening beasts. Randy discovers long-buried secrets about his past and his relationship to the stranger, but other answers are left for later books. The combination of a circus environment with elements of ever-popular Greek mythology has potential, but heavy-handed imagery, undue repetition, and extraneous minutiae weigh down the story. Ages 12–18.

The Talisman of Elam
Jim Mastro. New Paradigm Publications (www.newparadigmpublications.com), $19.95 (328p) ISBN 978-0-9827673-2-0
An unwary boy is hurled into an ancient intergalactic conflict in this labyrinthine first installment of the Children of Hathor series. In the woods near his house, Jason and his friends stumble upon a hidden spaceship belonging to two aliens from the planet Elam, who inform Jason that their archenemies, the Thothians, are scheming to take over Earth and have abducted his parents and replaced them with robots. The aliens persuade Jason to come with them, as only he can thwart the villains and rescue his parents and the planet. This mission entails a wild, danger-filled journey through space in search of a magical talisman, located on a distant planet, which will not only give him the power to accomplish these goals but also earn him a place on the revered council that controls intergalactic affairs. The quest brings the travelers face-to-face with aliens both evil and benign and involves some suspenseful moments, especially as it winds to a close. Yet the characters are one-dimensional and the novel's pacing is uneven, its action impeded by unwieldy details of the history of interplanetary rivalries. Ages 12–18.