top of page

The Picture Book Buzz

HOʻONANI: Hula Warrior - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

At some point, in some way, everyone has felt that they don't belong. Some are just better at hiding that insecurity. While others channel it into aggression against others.

But since we are not carbon copies or clones, we are all naturally different. Those differences should be celebrated, encouraged, and nurtured. Not vilified, isolated, or worse attacked, either physically or emotionally.

This week's #PPBF pick explores the Hawaiian tradition of Māhū, those who embrace both the feminine and masculine. Hoping to show that everyone deserves "unconditional acceptance and respect."

HOʻONANI: Hula Warrior

Author: Heather Gale

Illustrator: Mika Song

Publisher: Tundra Books (2019)

Ages: 4-8



Acceptance, self-awareness, diversity, and Hawaii.

Synopsis (from Barnes & Noble):

An empowering celebration of identity, acceptance and Hawaiian culture based on the true story of a young girl in Hawaiʻi who dreams of leading the boys-only hula troupe at her school. Ho'onani feels in-between. She doesn't see herself as wahine (girl) OR kane (boy). She's happy to be in the middle. But not everyone sees it that way. When Ho'onani finds out that there will be a school performance of a traditional kane hula chant, she wants to be part of it. But can a girl really lead the all-male troupe? Ho'onani has to try.

Based on a true story, Ho'onani: Hula Warrior is a celebration of Hawaiian culture and an empowering story of a girl who learns to lead and learns to accept who she really is—and in doing so, gains the respect of all those around her. Ho'onani's story first appeared in the documentary A Place in the Middle by filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson.

Opening Lines:

Ho'onani Kamai did not see herself as a wahine, "girl."

Or think she was a kane "boy."

She preferred just Ho'onani.

"She is who she is!" her mother said.

"She does what she wants!" her father said.

But her sister, Kana wished Ho'onani did not sing songs so loud or play the ukulele faster and better that every Kane at school.

What I Loved about this book:

I love books with strong female characters; girls and women willing to follow their dreams, even if that means challenging the status quo. And books that make us examine our beliefs and misconceptions; that challenge us to be better people. This book does both.

Ho'onani wants to participate in her school's revival of a Hawaiian tradition - the hula chant. Even though this is a role normally reserved for the high school boys.

Text © Heather Gale, 2019 . Image © Mika Song, 2019.

Despite the acceptance by her mother, father, and brothers to Ho'onani's news that she intended to try out, her sister's eye roll and silent treatment hurt worse than the exclamations of disbelief and mutters from the boys when she auditions. But she auditions anyway and succeeds in being part of the hula chant group.

Text © Heather Gale, 2019 . Image © Mika Song, 2019.

Heather skillfully created the refrain "strong, sure, and steady," which perfectly encapsulates Ho'onani's personality. Practicing hard, Ho'onani not only learns the hula dance, but discovers that her strength, strong voice, and bravery wins her the "complete awe and true acceptance" of the high school boys and makes her the group's chant leader. Before the performance, her teacher warns that others might "create a fuss" at a wahine leading the chant, Ho'onani replies, "If someone wants to leave . . . that is their problem." She was not backing down.

Mika's bold ink and watercolor illustrations poignantly portray Ho'onani's struggles. As well as highlighting many nuances of being Hawaiian and Māhū (in the middle). For instance, note the intertwined white and yellow leis, at the beginning, showing the duality of wahine & kane. Mika further highlights this unity of wahine-kane and sibling support in the ending in both Ho'onani's and her sister, Kana's attire. (Spoilers . . . you'll have to read the book to see how.)

In an interesting choice, the author's note and discussion of Hawaiian culture are on the dedication pages, before the story begins. It was nice to know that the story is based on real people and be grounded in relevant terminology and background information before I started reading.

This is a wonderfully well-written and illustrated book offering a peek at Hawaiian traditions and language and a call for acceptance of the differences (big and small) that exist in us all. A book that should have a place in every city, school, and personal library.


- watch the documentary, A Place in the Middle, about Ho'onani (;

- make your own flower lei, using whatever color flowers you like (;

- learn about the Hawaiian islands and hula. Maybe even learn a hula dance; or

- write a story or draw a picture of a time you felt different (for any reason at all).

If you missed the joint interview of Heater Gale and Mika Song on Monday, find it (here) to learn why Heather didn't create a strictly nonfiction story and a few more items that Mika hid within the illustrations.

This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

Follow Me

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Instagram Social Icon
  • 1473394675_goodreads
  • Pinterest



bottom of page