I was talking with students at Ka ‘Umeke Ka’eo School, in Hilo, Hawaii. The kids were asking really good questions about language, sub-text, themes, metaphor, and symbolism. The kids were excited to discover that what they suspected in The Niuhi Shark Saga was true: everything was intentional and had meaning. The series was full of kaona to the max.
We were in a groove.
And then it happened.
“Aunty, what is the significance of the turtle?” a boy asked, pointing to the books in my hand.
My jaw hit the floor.
“You mean the turtle on the cover of book two, One Shark, No Swim?” I said.
He nodded, earnest and perplexed. He’d read the books a couple of times, but couldn’t figure out why in the world a turtle was featured on the cover. In a series where even the names and occupations carry deep meaning, he knew he must be missing something—something important.
I closed my mouth, thinking.
I opened it to tell him the truth.
“I wanted to use sea creatures on the covers to give readers hints about what was important in each book. A shark made sense for book 1, One Boy, No Water. An octopus made sense for book 3, One Truth, No Lie. But I didn’t want to use a shark again on book 2—I thought two sharks and an octopus would make book 3 seem out of place. We were under a tight deadline to publish the editions with the black tattoo covers. Manta rays, seahorse, eels—nothing I could get the rights to really resonated or matched the other art. And then someone found research that said Asian markets liked books with turtles on them. It was easy to get the rights to a turtle image. So that’s what we did.”
You could cut the disappointment with a knife.
I said, “So the turtle means nothing to the story. What do you think should be on the cover?”
I looked around the room. Lots of heads were nodding.
“You guys agree? What do you want to see on the cover?”
‘Ilima, they roared.
Back in the car, my husband gave me side-eye. “The kids don’t like the turtle,” he said.
“Nope. But that’s the first time someone’s mentioned it. ‘Ilima’s not a sea creature, though,” I said.
“Hmmmm,” he said.
And then it happened again that night in Kailua-Kona at Kahakai Elementary.
A teacher walked up with the books in her hands. “Lehua, I’ve read the books over and over looking for it. What is the significance of the turtle?”
My husband bit his lip and didn’t dare make eye contact with me.
Again, I told the truth.
I hate that.
So I asked, “What do you think should be on the cover?”
“‘Ilima!” she said.
“Yeah!” others said.
“But she’s not a sea creature,” I said.
It was like I was talking Greek.
“What does that have to do with it?” people asked.
And that’s when I realized that the covers should really be about what people loved—and they loved ‘Ilima.
So, back in my office in the snowy, cold Rocky Mountains, I began researching ideas for ‘Ilima and considering changing the cover of book 2. ‘Ilima doing what? Sleeping? Scratching? Walking on the reef? Sniffing?
No. ‘Ilima to the rescue!
And like starting to clean a closet or eating an artichoke, one small change exploded into many more changes that just wouldn’t fit back in the box.
Swapping an insignificant turtle for ‘Ilima has now become new covers and branding for the entire series.
I’m excited about these new covers. We’re getting ready to release new editions of the all three books with the new covers in eBook, paperback, and HARDBACK. Production is also beginning on audiobooks for the series.
But in the meantime, here’s ‘Ilima as she’ll appear on the cover of One Shark, No Swim.
Sorry, turtle. Time for you to go.