This week I’ve been in graphic design hell as I’ve been trying to create new covers for the first of three stories based on re-imagined western fairy tales with a Hawaiian twist. The books have been ready for quite awhile–it’s the eBook, paperback, and hardback covers that have been holding up publication.
The whole thing has been driving me crazy.
Once I have a solid concept, I turn the designs in progress to different focus groups. They’re told that the books are standalone serials that are only loosely linked through recurring characters and settings from other books I write and that they there are sci-fi or magical realism with romance elements. People looked at them and then submitted their feedback in writing. I took their feedback and refined the designs, eventually showing a new iteration to more focus groups until I thought I had the best cover possible given my limitations of time and money. The finer details got refined by a trusted handful of people.
Here’s where I started about a week ago.
I liked that flowers and borders framed the series as a set. The title fonts and center images gave clues about the genre for each story. The additional text explained that these were riffs on traditional fairy tales. Winner, winner, chicken dinner, right?
Public Focus Group Feedback #1
“Too much text.”
“These don’t look like they go together. Use the same fonts.”
“Fonts need work.”
“You can’t sell romances set in the same world with different genres. Are you stupid?”
“Everything is wrong. You need to hire me to create proper covers. You’re going to fail at this.”
(I looked up this person’s portfolio. Once I stopped laughing, I took everything they said with an ocean of salt.)
I dropped the floral border, change font colors and the bar/band textures, and other minor changes.
Public Focus Group Feedback #2
“Too much text.”
“Body parts are horrible on romance covers.”
“These look like different genres. One looks sci-fi, one looks chick-lit, and the other is just terrible.”
“Use the same font on all the titles.”
“The quality of the artwork with the flowers was better.”
“Unless you’re Stephen King, nobody cares what else you’ve written, and if you’re Stephen King, you don’t have to brag.”
“Rell is whiter than the others. Was this intentional?”
“Pua looks like she has mutton chops.”
“Unless Nani doesn’t have arms in the story, her truncated limbs are freaking me out.”
“You’re going to get sued for calling these Fractured Folktales. It’s too close to Fractured Fairytales.”
(Nope. No copyright issues. But thanks for the warning.)
“Fonts need work.”
“You’re hiding the beautiful artwork behind too much text. Let the art tell the story.”
“Hire me. These suck.”
(Also reviewed this person’s portfolio. Hard pass.)
Changed Rell from an ‘okole shot to a whole person, realigned all the images, used the same font for the titles, dropped top bar, and other small changes.
Public Focus Group Feedback #3
“I liked it with all the flowers better.”
“Fonts need work.”
“So much better without all that text.”
Changed Rell to a more active pose, changed title font styles and location, cropped images differently, other minor changes.
Small Focus Group Feedback 4
“There’s something weird about Pua’s stomach.”
“Mom, I’m busy with finals.”
“Come to bed. It’s 4:30 am.”
I think this where they will end up–or something very similar. The font snaps and can be read at thumbnail size for eBooks. I like that the women are strong and beautiful on the covers. We’ll test market them a little in eBook before committing to paperback and maybe hardback options. What do think?
And now to start on the backs and spines–and blurbs and meta data. Send chocolate. It’s going to be another long week.
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.
“Gamble” is a new short story I wrote that’s coming out in an anthology called Grifty Shades of Fey, published by Fiction Vortex.
It’s a noir story, kinda like a something from the 1950s in tone. “Gamble” is about a mortal named Jace, the goddess of Chance, a kidnapped woman about to be whisked away to another dimension by some serious baddies, and a pair of dice that reveal whether a venture will be successful–or not. There’s nothing particularly Hawaiian in this one, but it was a lot of fun to write.
Grifty Shades of Fey features stories about fairies, brownies, and other creatures that go bump in the night by best-selling fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction authors. It’s only available for a short time in hardback, paperback, and eBook. Click on the link below to order your copies in time for Christmas.
One day Mom called me in from playing. She gave me a tuna fish sandwich and some carrot sticks and said there was a brand new TV show just for me. I don’t remember eating lunch, but I do remember a big yellow bird and a monster in a trash can.
For years, Sesame Street kept me company while I ate lunch. Later, when it switched to late afternoon, I knew when it was over, Dad would be walking through the door.
I haven’t watched Sesame Street in decades. My kids seldom watched it, probably because by the time they were born there were so many shows—entire channels!—just for them, that Sesame Street was lost in the crowd. But last night I watched Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary Celebration on PBS.org, streaming it when convenient, freed from my childhood angst of clock-watching to be sure I didn’t miss it.
I knew when it started that things could not be the same, but I was still shocked to hear Not Big Bird’s Voice and Not Grover and Not Kermit and Not Oscar.
Seeing Bob made me tear up. He’ll always be in his thirties and forties to me.
There were no palm trees or beaches on Sesame Street, and that in itself was endlessly fascinating. Kids wore shoes ALL the time! They lived in big brick buildings with gigantic concrete steps they could sit on. They could walk on sidewalks to Mr. Hooper’s Store where there was not a single crack seed jar in the joint. And while kids were shown running and playing on grass in the opening song, I never saw kids doing that on Sesame Street.
No wonder they wore shoes all the time.
A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.
How did anyone buy a single stick of butter? And why a container of milk, not a carton? Didn’t mainland milk come in a waxed paper cartons with Lani Moo or hibiscuses on them?
So many questions!
50 years later, people still remember the songs, sketches, characters, and the promise of Sesame Street. Muppets and humans in all shapes, sizes, ages, abilities, and colors were portrayed as family, and by extension, so were we. Sesame Street created a television community that stretched from Hawai’i to New York and beyond. In a time when people are theoretically more connected than ever, there’s no show like this one that rallies children from all walks of life into a community. There are simply too many choices now.
A little ironic, don’t you think?
Happy Halloween! In honor of the day, here’s a very short story.
by Lehua Parker
The fun-sized candy calls, “Eat me, eat me, eat me,” to Josey Brackenburg.
No, she tells herself. I bought it for the kids. Besides, I can’t be this hungry already. I just ate breakfast twenty minutes ago.
“Josey,” calls the candy. “Eat me. You’re starving. And I am delicious.”
She resists, but it’s futile. An hour later Josey heaves herself behind the steering wheel, trailing empty wrappers like breadcrumbs. Gotta start line-drying my jeans, she thinks. Stupid dryer’s shrinking them.
In her grocery cart she chases apples with caramels, adds popsicles for their sticks, and stacks cases of soda on the rack beneath—no diet-death chemicals allowed in her house, thank you very much. Rounding the bakery, pumpkin chocolate-chip cookies leap off the shelves and tumble into her cart, perfect for midnight snacking. Not until checkout does she remember.
Halloween is in two weeks.
She needs more candy.
With twenty bags of sweets and treats jammed in the trunk, Josey takes the twenty-first bag with her, ripping it open to tide her over the two miles home. Hitching herself back into the driver’s seat, the button pops on her jeans.
Cheap. Nobody makes rivets like they used to.
The Snickers bar agrees as it chases the Milky Way down.
Cruising past the drive-thru, she scans the line stretching around the block and reluctantly parks. It’s an hour before lunch time, but the rush has already started.
No time to wait.
Waddling in, she super-sizes her biggie fries. Hot grease and salt sizzle as she drags them through her peanut-butter malt.
Catching her eye, Annie hefts her triple burger. “It’s perfectly normal to gain a few pounds before winter,” Annie laughs. “We’ll diet later!”
Josey pats her swelling muffin top. “Carrots sticks and rice crackers in January,” she grins. “But through the holidays let’s all get fat and happy!”
In space, Zargog adjusts a dial, his antennae quivering with excitement. “You’re right, Captain. The mountain species are more susceptible to the calo-ray than the coastal varieties. Near the large inland sea, scans also show fewer contaminates in the population—lower levels of nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine.”
“Excellent. Inform Chef the feedlot is optimized. Harvest Fest will commence as scheduled.”
Under the Bed was the first story I wrote when I was thinking about writing fiction again. Back in 2009, my sister Soozy challenged me to enter a local newspaper’s Halloween short story contest. She said write something that’s true, but nobody believes. Called Sniff, it was about a mainland boy who has something under his bed, a something with an overdeveloped sense of smell that likes sweet things and hates stinky things. It was for an adult audience, and the underlying theme was about how busy parents miss important things going on with their kids, and if they aren’t careful, Bad Things Happen.
Sniff won a nice steak dinner for me and my husband and reminded me that I like telling stories. It led to me reaching out to the local writing community and eventually writing and publishing fiction again.
Over the years, I’ve dusted this story off and rewritten it multiple times, changing the location to Hawaii and adding more story. I even submitted a version to Bamboo Ridge a couple of years ago, but no dice.
Last June, I found it again. I had the idea to write some island-style books for kids 9-14 or so, quick reads that had elements of Hawaiian-kine ghost stories and adventures similar to Goosebumps, but with more bite. I figured I’d call the series Lauele Chicken Skin Stories and set them in my imaginary area of ‘Oahu called Lauele. I had a bunch of scary stories that I’d written and published years ago and now had the publishing rights back. In my head, it wouldn’t be too hard to create new versions of these stories and roll them out pretty quickly.
The first one was going to be Under the Bed. It has a great cover. It should have gone to print in early September and been in readers’ hands by now, just in time for Halloween.
I have an editor I work with. He’s a genius who knows more about story structure than most editors twice his age. And he really hated Under the Bed. He wasn’t shy about telling me why. He said the ending sucked, that I broke the promises I made with the reader in the beginning and the payoff isn’t there. He said it also hit all his hot buttons—a kid neglected by his parents who dies in the end. The more I explained, the more he just rolled his eyes and said, “Who is your audience?”
To prove him wrong, I sent it out to a few beta readers. They really liked it. Then I gave it away in ebook form at different conventions and tracked follow-on sales and comments.
There were no sales that went from Under the Bed to any of my other works that I could track.
Bummahs to the max.
Stupid genius editor was right. The story doesn’t work. I took off my author’s hat and put on my own editor’s hat and started reworking the story, trying to figure out what was missing.
Halting publication of Under the Bed derailed my entire schedule for the rest of the year, but it had to be done. If your first impression sucks, no way a reader is going to pick up any other book in your series.
I was stewing about what to do when I attended Utah Valley University’s Book Academy last week. I’d given a presentation about establishing resonance with your audience through the story’s setting and then hung around for some of the other presentations. Lisa Mangum, a powerhouse of an editor and conference speaker, gave a presentation, Endings That Don’t Suck.
A light bulb went off.
The people who liked Under the Bed were all adults. They were also probably more excited about the Pidgin and other local aspects than the actual story.
But the new intended target was kids, and they were going to hate it. Kona needs to be the hero, not the victim. Kids already know that adults are clueless. They need to see a kid overcome adversity—and win. I needed to completely gut the story and start over. The only things that could stay were the monster under the bed and the desire Kona has to protect his family.
I don’t know when this work is going to be ready for publication. I have to leave Under the Bed for a while to write other works under contract.
But never fear, Constant Reader. New works are coming. In addition to the Lauele Chicken Skin Stories, I have three reimagined Western fairy tales that are almost ready to publish under Lauele Fractured Folktales. And audio books of the Niuhi Shark Saga are in the works, too.
It’s just taking a lot longer than I planned.
But I think you’ll find the wait was worth it.
A Song for the Stars by Ilima Todd is set in Hawai’i in 1779 at the time of Captain James Cook. It tells a fictional story of John Harbottle, an English officer serving as the Hawaiian translator for Cook, and Maile, the second daughter of Kalani, the ruling chief. When Cook and his ships return unexpectedly to Hawai’i, important navigational instruments and maps are stolen. There’s a battle on the beach, and lives are lost on both sides. Against her better judgement, Maile first nurses, then teaches John ancient Hawaiian wayfinding techniques to help the British sailors return home. Meanwhile, John’s men teach Kalani and his warriors how to fight with western guns to defend their village from an imminent attack from Wai’ole, an island to the south.
If your head is spinning, chillax. It’s historical romance, not a history book. Ilima takes several liberties with the historical timeline, geography, and Hawaiian cultural protocols to tell a story that appeals to both a Hawaiian and mainland audience. It’s a “what if” story with roots in Ilima’s own family history. The real John Harbottle was instrumental to Kamehameha I in 1795 during the Battle of Nu’uanu on ‘Oahu, an event more than 15 years in the future from Cook’s landing in 1779. In gratitude, Harbottle was gifted a high-ranking bride. A descendant of the real John Harbottle and his high chiefess wife Papapaunauapu, Ilima wanted to explore what it would be like to be “given” to a foreigner in marriage. While her original “what if” idea and family history are the genesis of her novel, the book’s themes and plot stretch well beyond those initial inspirations.
Ilima breaks with the historical record in ways only someone who has studied Hawaiian culture and history will catch. Foremost in her mind was her audience. A Song for the Stars is part of Shadow Mountain’s Proper Romance series and is marketed to regency romance readers who expect a specific kind of story–and Ilima delivers. Maile, her heroine is strong, independent, and capable. John is honest, forthright, and tender. It’s a story of equals from different cultures that deftly avoids the noble savage and white savior tropes so common in cross-culture stories. We see the main story from Maile’s point of view interspersed with John’s point of view from excepts from his journal, a technique that helps the reader appreciate the deeper cultural consequences of the characters’ actions.
Many reviewers compare A Song for the Stars with Moana, which I understand, but find extremely frustrating because the stories aren’t similar at all. The comparison points to the dearth of authentic stories about Polynesians in mainstream media. We need more books that challenge expectations, more island voices redefining Pacific Literature for modern audiences. Mahalo, Ilima, for blazing a new path. I mua! Can’t wait for the next one.
‘Aumakua whisper in my ear.
I want to ride the lightning.
In the shower this morning, an entire story burst into my head. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale set in Hawaii and told from the perspective of a young local girl who learns to survive through traditional Hawaiian ways as taught by her grandfather. She’ll have to be very, very clever.
I think it’s partially Mauna Kea on my mind.
Before we can create the world we want to live in, we have to first imagine it, and then believe it’s possible. That’s the power of story. It seeps into subconscious cracks. Without saying it baldly, a story like this says, “Of course, Hawaiians thrive in the future, and their culture flourishes. Duh! A return to internalizing traditional values can help heal the world.”
There is always a but.
So much else to do today. Deadlines are looming on other projects. I just…can’t.
But I see you, little one, standing in the shadows, with your puka shirt and “Wot? I owe you money?” look in your eye. You have a lot to tell me.
I want to listen and talk story with you.
Soon, titah. Promise.
I’m so excited to add these books to my collection. They are the same book with two different covers in two different languages: Hawaiian and English.
Published by Awaiaulu Press, the English edition is The Epic Tale of Hi’iakaikapoliopele as told by Ho’oulumahienhie and translated by M. Puakea Nagelmeien. The Hawaiian edition is Ka Mo’olelo o Hi’iakaikapoliopele.
This ancient saga details the quest of Pele’s younger sister, Hi’iakaikapoliopele, to find the handsome Lohi’auipo and bring him back to their crater home. Graced with a magical skirt and wielding supernatural powers, Hi’iaka and her companions make their way through dangers and ordeals, facing spectral foes and worldly wiles. It is a very human account of love and lust, jealousy and justice, peopled with deities, demons, chiefs and commoners. It highlights Hi’iaka’s role as a healer, source of inspiration, and icon of the hula traditions that embody the chants and dances of Pele and Hi’iaka. At over 500 pages, this is the most extensive form of the story every documented, offering a wealth of detail and insights about the social and religious practices, poetry and hula, the healing arts, and many other Hawaiian customs.
Did I mention the illustrations? Fabulous.
One day I hope to be able to flip easily between the two, but that day is a looooong way off.
In my office are shelves full of books I cannot read yet. I buy them because I think it’s important to support native language books. If we believe that language and is life and that written words connect generations, then we need to support these kinds of efforts in ways beyond good thoughts and well-wishes.
You want more diverse books, characters, films, music, art? Then support the arts in all forms. Go to local plays, concerts, art shows, books signings, film festivals, and kokua as you can. Simply leaving a positive review or spreading the word does more good than people realize.
The world’s a better place with many voices telling their stories. Let’s amplify and pass the mic.
First published in Japan in 2000, Go reminded me a little of Cather in the Rye, Romeo and Juliet, and A Separate Peace. There’s that same earnest yearning in the protagonist for things to be different, for the world to change, and the same youthful expectation that he will be the one to change it. There’s also a fatalistic, melancholy undertone that no matter how hard the protagonist tries, he’s not going to win.
But that’s probably my interpretation as someone well past her teens. The youth are fearless. It’s a coming of age novel after all.
The Japanese to English translation by Takami Nieda is good. Go won a Naoki Literature Prize, high praise indeed. It’s a story about racial tensions, belonging, forbidden love, social class, nationality, and generational connections. Everything pointed to a story I’d love, except…
I liked it, but I wasn’t as thrilled as I thought I’d be.
Not all stories speak to all readers. I think I wanted more from this story–more deliberate action and growth in the protagonist and less angst. Maybe a more even tone–something that was consistently funny or serious. But what I wanted might not have been appropriate for this kind of Japanese literature. Given how beloved this book is in its native Japan, I’m sure the fault is in me.