Picture Book Analysis: Kohola: King of the Whales by Vince Daubenspeck

Because of Labor Day, I'm a bit behind this week. I don't want to shortchange you, so I'll post the next installment of PBU next week! Because I don't want to leave you hanging, I figured I'd do another picture book analysis of an awesome new picture book that would be a GREAT, AMAZING gift for not only a child but a family as well. It's entitled, Kohola: King of the Whales. Written as a folktale from the Hawaiian islands, Vince Daubenspeck masterfully weaves a tale of the journey of a young humpback whale from lonely outcast to magnificent hero that underscores the theme of being yourself and never giving up.

The book's illustrations are breathtaking throughout which matches the beautiful words. It's a piece of art through and through!

Okay, can you tell I'm in love with this book? Onto the analysis.

SPOILER ALERT! My picture book analyses will reveal the climax/ending to every story. So be forewarned!

Genre: Original folktale (the author made it up--but you can't tell it's not an actual legend because it's so well done.)

Synopsis: A loving grandfather tells his grandson the tale of Kohola: King of the Whales. Kohola is born with unusually large fins and is rejected by his peers, so he takes to exploring the deep ocean by himself. When his overly protective parents tell Kohola not jump out of the water because it's too dangerous, Kohola tries his best to obey, but his curiosity gets in the way. He uses his large fins to literally sail out of the water and soon he's a master jumper. But when some dangerous killer whales threaten his life and the lives of his clan, he uses his skill to crash down on the animals and scare them away. He tries to teach other whales how to jump out of the water, but no whale could soar the way Kohola, king of the whales could to this day even though you can see them trying.

Plot elements:

  • Intro: The story opens with a child seeing a whale jump out of the water. His grandfather tells him the tale of Kohola to explain why they do this.
  • Problem: Kohola is born with extra large fins and is an outcast.

  • Escalating problem: Because of Kohola's large fins and athleticism, he dives very deep into the ocean causing alarm among his clan.
  • More problems: Kohola decides to dive deep then rise out of the water which his parents forbade because it's dangerous. He goes against his parents' wishes and becomes an expert jumper.
  • Climax--Dangerous killer whales threaten Kohola's life.
  • Solution--Kohola uses his skill of jumping out of the water to frighten them away.
  • Ending--Kohola protects his clan and teaches them the skill thereby gaining the respect of all whales.
  • Folktale connection--This is why you see all whales trying to jump out of the water. They want to be like Kohola, king of the whales.

Folktales usually tell of a legend about why you see certain things as they are. I've re-written many folktales and some have been published by magazines. In every one, there is a larger than life reason why you might see animals with different feathers or coats of fur or even why an island is shaped the way it is. This tale is no different except that the author made it up himself, mirroring the style of a typical legend. 

Style elements:

  • Folktale narration: Told from a third person omniscient format, this story feels old and yet not too distant so a child would be interested.
  • Vivid language: sparkling sea, flashing storm clouds, clear shining light, crashing waves, long, clumsy fins, etc.
  • Kid connection: The story opens with a child's question. In the middle, you see the child wanting to act like Kohola--you can feel the excitement and are emotionally attached to the story at this point as seen through the child's eyes.
  • Great use of imagery: the killer whales are not named as such since this is told from the perspective of the whale. They are called, "dark lights" since they blot out the light when their large dark bodies swim in front of the sun, streaming through the water. He uses language like "waves of fear" as a nod to the water but also gives you the foreboding feeling.
  • Circularity: The story closes as it opens with the child and the grandfather. You get a sense of completeness when you see the child look again at a whale rising out of the water.

If you want to rewrite an existing folktale, or better yet, write your own, this would be a great book to study as well have in your own library.

Happy reading!

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