By Elizabeth Wroten
Graphic Novel Review: The Shark King by R. Kikuo Johnson
On 16, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I am desperately trying to beef up our graphic novel selection in the library. There are a lot of readers who would really click with them if we just had them. I hadn’t heard of Toon books until I went to ALA and saw a few of their publications. I particularly like that they have lower reading levels in a many of their books so that even our emerging readers who want something more grown up can read them.
In looking for books to book talk with the kids about on that first day of library I had picked up a copy of the The Shark God by Rafe Martin and was kind of underwhelmed. The illustrations by David Shannon were pretty engaging, but the story fell really flat. It’s a retelling and some of the alterations and the length just really didn’t work for me. I was, however, interested in seeing if I could find the same story done better. That led me to The Shark King.
The story itself in The Shark King is really engaging. Young Nanuae is the son of a mortal woman and the shark god Kamohoali’i. His father disappeared around the time Nanuae was born and has not been there to help him with his identity. All he left was a cape to help hide the shark’s mouth that appeared on his back. As Nanuae grows he wonders about his father and feels lonely living with only his mother in a small cove on the shore. After a man and his son visit their cove to fish the boy follows them back to their village where he gets into some trouble over stealing fish from the fishermen’s nets. The villagers tear off his cloak in an attempt to grab him and see him as a monster. They chase him off with the intent to kill him and he must dive into the sea for protection.
My biggest concern is that the story is simplified for children. I think having fairy tales and folk tales in their original form (or as close to it as possible) is important for maintaining the important messages and lessons they were meant to convey (I’m looking at you Disney). I did some really cursory poking around and found other similar versions to this retelling. Is that good or bad? I’m not sure yet. I also came across this post on the author’s blog. In it he shares some of his research and why he made the changes he did. He did apparently tone the story down, which originally had Nanuae eating passing fishermen. Maybe not the best topic for our emerging readers, but it might have been a good sell for some of our boys. On the other hand, does that detract from the authenticity of the story? Again I’m not sure yet. I wonder if this would pique a child’s interest in reading more stories about Kamohoali’i. The author is from Hawaii so that’s a point in the book’s favor for sure, although he doesn’t identify as native Hawaiian on his website, in his bio on Goodreads or in the author bio in the book.
I should note that this is NOT the same story that is told in The Shark God, so unfortunately this one can’t replace the other. I need more Hawaiian myths and legends in our collection too. If they involve Kamohoali’i, the shark god, they are incredibly appealing and exciting. The verdict on this particular book is still not clear.