Graphic Novel Review: The Shark King

This slim early-chapter-book graphic novel retelling of a traditional Hawaiian story will appeal to adults as well.

The Shark King by R. Kikuo Johnson.
TOON Books, New York, 2012.
Graphic novel, 40 pages.
Lexile:  GN410L or GN380L ?   ( Also what does GN mean in Lexile? )
AR Level:  1.6 (worth 0.5 points)  .
NOTE: I have some disagreement with these levels, see review for details.

This is the story of Nanaue, from the day his parents met onward.

The Shark King resized

Most graphic novels I’ve reviewed here so far fall into the middle school, teen, or adult categories.  While some might be appropriate for younger MG readers, most were not.  This book is aimed at elementary students – although I wouldn’t hesitate to add it to a middle school library or even a high school if high-low books were needed.  The age of the characters is not specified, and while Toon Books specializes in elementary graphic novels, they do also make some for older readers.

This slim graphic novel is divided into three chapters.  Chapter one tells the story of his parents meeting and preparing for him.  Chapter two covers his remarkable childhood and his first time meeting someone outside of his family.  Chapter three is about what happens after he discovers a village on the island.

These short graphic novel chapters are the perfect spacing for early readers who can handle some advanced vocabulary (laughing, outswim, weird) but aren’t ready for regular chapter books.  It’s also great for older readers who don’t have the stamina for a longer text but still want an interesting and complex read.  Or as a quick, refreshing read for anyone who’d like something short but fun to read.

The artwork is fabulous.  Johnson uses a vintage comics style (as you would see in serious, story-based comics before the popularity of graphic novels), but adds a modern cleanness to the coloring.  His lines and shading are perfect.  The choice of palette sets an interesting tone – this could have happened just this way long ago, it could be a myth, but it’s such a good read we don’t particularly care.

The Shark King p22-23 resized
The Shark King by R. Kikuo Johnson, pages 22 and 23.

There is a lot of variety to the paneling, which adds interest and keeps the eye moving.  The unusual panels are also appropriate to the storyline and help to show the passage of time or draw attention to important moments.  A few illustrations cover a full page, but most are paneled similarly to the example above.

The dialogue is sparse (there aren’t many characters), but it doesn’t feel too repetitive even though key words are used several times.  Many compound words are used here, so it would tie in nicely to a unit on those.  Older kids could look at the different ways Johnson indicated the passage of time – there are several points where much time passes in this book and he uses multiple techniques to convey it to the reader.

Johnson’s lettering is easy to read, and his sequence of panels is easy to follow.  I would expect nothing less from a Toon Book author.  This book was also enjoyed by the children, either independently or with some support depending on where they are with reading.

I am leery of the recommended age given by the AR/Lexile levels for this text though.  While there are certainly some children who might be ready for it in first grade or even kindergarten, this is a fairly sophisticated story which I’d recommend to students who are ready for early chapter books.  As mentioned above, this particular volume could also work as a hi-low reader for older students who are learning to read.

There weren’t any negatives that I saw.  Before purchasing this, I read some reviews commenting negatively about Nanaue’s mother Kalei – but if parents are concerned, I’ll mention that the text does clearly state that Nanaue’s parents marry.  There is some ambiguity about what happens to Nanaue’s father (which is part of the text complexity I mentioned above), but in real life many fathers leave their families, go missing, or die.  Most readers will draw the same conclusion as Kalei by the end.

Highly recommended.  It seems that Johnson has only written one other graphic novel (the very adult Night Fisher), but we can certainly hope he writes more for young readers.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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