When I write a review, I try to be professional and refrain from gushing, but sometimes a book is so spectacular that I can't help myself. The Shark King by R Kikuo Johnson, the newest title from TOON Books is one of those. The Shark King, which I hope might become a series, has action, adventure, mythology, exotic (to me) locales, and a playfully curious, brave protagonist in Nanaue (pronounced nah-NOW-way.) And, on top of a great story, The Shark King is told through artwork that is elegant and vibrant with a timeless feel with Johnson's use of black silhouettes adding a sense of drama and grandeur to the tale. Johnson, who grew up on the island of Maui, drew on Hawaiian folklore, specifically the shape-shifting shark god, Kamohoalii and his son with the insatiable appetite, Nanaue. Best of all, The Shark King is a graphic novel for emerging readers and, aside from the fact that it is just plain great, it represents some much needed, all-around diversity in books of all genres written at this reading level. I arrived home from work at midnight, dragging myself in the door, but when I saw the envelope with this book in it waiting for me, I tore it open, propped up my eyelids and devoured it, twice. Thank you, TOON Books and thank you Mr Johnson for this gem.
Chapter One finds a young woman, Kalei combing the rocks for opihi (op-PEE-hi) which, Johnson tells us, is a "delicious sea snail." Suddenly, a massive wave is upon her, a wave that seems to have an enormous shark at the heart of it. However, instead of drowning, the young woman is pulled from the sea by a man who returns her opihi to her. As is often the way with mythological tales, a romance follows and soon a baby is on the way. One day Kalei's husband disappears, diving off the cliff, saying only, "I'm making a place for our son at the bottom of the pool." Then, the night before their son is born, he disappears for good, leaving his cape with Kalei, insisting that their son will need it one day.
Nanaue is born, healthy and full of life and with a giant appetite, but with a strange marking on his back. The pages that show Nanaue and Kalei's life on the island are so full of energy and joy that I read the pages over a couple of times. However, this idyllic life soon fades when other islanders discover these two and Nanaue finds he cannot contain his differences enough to keep them from being frightened by him. In the end, it is Nanaue's appetite that gets him into trouble and causes him to finally, desperately, need that mysterious place that his father made for him at the bottom of the pool.
I don't want to give away too many of the details of this engaging story, but I will leave you with a bit more of the superb artwork from this great new book.