Allison's Book Bag

An Hawaiian Shape-Shifter

Posted on: April 12, 2013

He could have swallowed you whole.

The future husband of Kalei tells her this when the two first meet. He is referring to the Shark King, who doesn’t like strangers in his waters. Shark King by Kikuo Johnson is based on an Hawaiian myth.


English: Aerial photo of Makena (Maui) and the...

English: Aerial photo of Makena (Maui) and the islands of Molokini and Kahaoolawe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

R. Kikuo Johnson grew up in Hawaii on the island of Maui. He spent his childhood exploring the rocky short in front of his grandmother’s house and diving with his older brother. Since moving to the mainland, he has discovered other joys such as playing his ukulele, riding his bike all over the city, and swimming in fresh water. He now lives in New York and teaches at Rhode Island School of Design.

With the publication in 2005 of his debut graphic novel, Night Fisher, Kikuo began a career in cartooning and illustration which included freelance work. According to Toon Books, Kikuo has been working intermittently on a second graphic novel, but hit a slump until discovering a Hawaaiian shark king myth. He read about ten versions before creating his own, which focused on the story of a boy who loses his father and feels out of place with those around him. Besides the legend, Kikuo also drew on his own experiences of diving around the Molokini crater and reefs off the shore of Maui during his regular visits back home to write Shark King.


Part Hawaiian myth and part graphic novel, Shark King tells of a shape-shifter god who falls in love with and marries a mortal woman. On the night before the birth of their son, the woman learns of her husband’s true identity when he insists he must return to the sea to protect their child.

In the original myth, instances of violence and cannibalism occur. The son, Nanaue, was born with a giant shark mouth on his back. Against his father’s warnings, Nanaue was fed meat, which sparked a taste for human flesh, and eventually led to him killing people. Nanaue was banished from the lands, eventually captured, and ultimately killed himself.

Full versions of the shark king myth can be found here:

Lesson plans for Shark King are at the publisher’s site:

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