Ho‘onani: Hula Warrior is a picture book written by Heather Gale, illustrated by Mika Song, and published by Tundra Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It’s based on the true story of Ho‘onani Kamai, a young gender queer girl growing up in Kalihi Valley who wants to lead the boys in a hula performance. Her story is also told in A Place in the Middle, a documentary written by Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu and produced and directed by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson.
I first came to this story through the book. Things to love about the book in no particular order: it’s published by a mainstream publisher; it tells a story of empowerment; at its heart the message is inclusive and affirming; it uses Hawaiian language; it brings aspects of Hawaiian culture to a wide audience; it’s a picture book for kids about real people in Hawaii facing modern challenges, not geckos, turtles, or ancient legends. All of these things put this book squarely in the win column.
While there is much to love about the book, I was dismayed and disappointed that it didn’t appear to be a very Hawaiian telling of Ho‘onani’s experience. The story arc is very western—Ho‘onani’s sister Kana plays the traditional role of villain by not initially supporting her in leading the boys and is embarrassed by her being gender queer—called being in the middle in the story. But with encouragement from Kumu Hina, Ho‘onani, the hero, preservers, and Kana supports her in the end. There are other small things that bugged me as outsider-ish, like the illustrations of food on their plates and the curious mixture of proper Hawaiian language complete with kahako and ‘okina markings alongside phonetic interpretations such as “Hai alla, hai alla, eh-oi-ay!” in the dialogue. Really, they just should’ve stuck with the proper language in all the dialogue and used a pronunciation guide in the back.
With such a mixed bag, I didn’t quite know how to review this title.
But then I saw the documentary it’s based on, and it all became so much clearer.
A Place in the Middle is the story I wish Ho‘onani: Hula Warrior more faithfully told. It’s definitely from a Hawaiian perspective. It doesn’t need a western hero-villain arc to discuss the evolution of mahu—kane-wahine and wahine-kane—people in the middle—from our ancestral past to modern day realities. In the documentary, Ho‘onani is simply who she is, and she has the grace and maturity to articulate that while some people don’t understand her, that’s just who they are, just like she’s just the way she is. The world will catch up to her someday and until then, she’s going to continue to lead, learn, and teach. Kumu Hina’s example and message that breaks down to as a kid, sometimes you have to bend to others’ expectations, but when you’re a grown-up, you won’t is chicken-skin powerful. Ho‘onani is supported by her school, family, and community. We’re on the journey to see her in action. She’s not a problem to solve.
And I really like that.
I also like that she calls herself a girl because she has physical girl parts, but identifies as in the middle because she possess both masculine and feminine energy. Refreshingly, neither the documentary nor the book discuss her sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is often confused with identity and can pull the focus away from exploring cultural gender roles, which is really what this story is about.
Should you buy Ho‘onani: Hula Warrior ?
Absolutely. We need more books like this one. The only way this will happen is if we can demonstrate to traditional publishers that there is a demand for these kinds of books.
But be sure to watch the documentary, A Place in the Middle. Just click here or on the title in this article to get to the website where you can view it for FREE. There are also free classroom materials and other short videos on that website.
Taken together, the book and documentary will give folks a lot to think and talk about with their keiki. And that’s a good thing.