June 21, 2007


King Puck. By Michael Garland. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Shark God. By Rafe Martin. Pictures by David Shannon. Scholastic. $5.99.

      Little-known old legends, skillfully retold, can be a great source of fun and adventure for young readers. Not that the legend behind King Puck is little known in its country of origin, Ireland. The book is based on Puck Fair – which, as Michael Garland explains in an Author’s Note, traces its roots to the 17th century or earlier and is still celebrated every August in the town of Killorglin. At this festival, a “best goat” is crowned King for a day, and Garland’s entirely fictional tale is of the very unusual way that one goat earned the title. This is a goat that learns to talk, thanks to the fairies that live at the farm where the goat, Finny, and his human friend, Seamus, live. Garland’s marvelously evocative illustrations make the goats, the townspeople, the self-important contest judges, and the gorgeous Irish countryside come alive, as Seamus and Finny head for town and eventually win the contest and its marvelous prize: a single wish. But ‘tis not gold or silver or hay they be wantin’ – ‘tis somethin’ a sight more worthy: books, which goat and man spend many happy hours reading together, watched by the fairies that are visible all around them on almost every page, if you but look close enough and wear a bit ‘o the green in your soul. King Puck is a joy from first page to last.

      There is little joy in The Shark God, a darker legend from the Hawaiian island of Molokai that Rafe Martin turned into a book in 2001 – a work now available in paperback. Martin changes the story in important ways, rendering it less bloody: in the original myth, the events are precipitated by an unjust execution, but in Martin’s telling, they arise from an innocent mistake made by two young children, whose family lives in a land ruled by a hard-hearted king. The structure of the story as Martin presents it is a familiar one in modern children’s books: the children save a shark and later, having unintentionally incurred the king’s wrath and been condemned to death, are themselves saved after their parents make a desperate appeal to the Shark God. David Shannon’s pictures meld well with the story and sometimes surpass the words – for example, when the parents come to the Shark God’s cave and witness the transformation of a huge shark into the terrifying Shark God himself, and when a cloud at sea grows larger and larger until it assumes the shape of a shark in the sky. There are plenty of thrills and a few chills here, plus a happy ending that may teach even some modern children that sharks are not inevitably fearsome creatures – and certainly not evil ones.

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