Ho‘onani: Hula Warrior
Ho‘onani: Hula Warrior
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 ukulele faster and better than every kane at school.
Ho’onani: Hula Warrior tells the story of a young gender-nonconforming child who, though she still uses female pronouns, does not wish to be either a girl or a boy. Ho’onani is seen by some as too loud, too brash, too masculine. But when she starts to show an interest in leading a group of students in a hula chant, some don’t believe she can do it because she’s not a boy, not strong enough, not bold enough! Stuck in the middle but not willing to back down, Ho’onani and her teacher, Kumu Hina (“kumu” means teacher), work to build her skills and prepare her to take the tests necessary to show that she is skilled enough to lead. And while her parents and brother are not very surprised at Ho’onani’s determination, Kana, her sister, is less than pleased and stops hanging out with Ho’onani like they used to. But in the end, Ho’onani works hard and continues to buck stereotypes in the process, ultimately bringing her closer to her goal with each passing day, until the moment arrives when she must prove herself in front of the whole community.
This empowering and delightfully engaging picture book is based on the true story of Ho’onani Kamai who was raised in Honolulu and was coached by Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu (shortened in the book to Kumu Hina). An author’s note at the beginning gives a more detailed explanation of the real-life story, some history and a mention of the documentary (A Place in the Middle) which was inspired by Ho’onani and Kumu Hina’s working together. Heather Gale grew up in New Zealand with a family of storytellers and became enamored with stories of real people, like Ho’onani, and the amount of detail in the book highlights that love of storytelling.
The story is not simply one of strength and overcoming obstacles, but it is also a story about traditions, acceptance, and respect for others. Ho’onani is not simply a determined youngster, but also an individual trying to help others understand that gender stereotypes are harmful and limiting. Gale’s picture book will help young readers and adults better understand a small slice of Hawaiian traditions and nonbinary people, referred to as Mahu, those who embody both feminine and masculine traits.
Mika Song’s illustrations, which incorporate a variety of body types, skin colours, and hair textures, highlight a diverse community. Watercolor and thick, angular black lines against a combination of white, open spaces, and blue or tan backgrounds elevate and emphasize Ho’onani as the central character within each spread. As well, the use of bold colors at times helps some characters become more noticeable in crowd scenes. Ho’onani’s strong facial features ensure that young readers will have no trouble gauging her moods throughout the story.
An entertaining, illuminating, and empowering read, Ho’onani: Hula Warrior will make a welcome addition to classrooms, libraries, and story times!
Rob Bittner has a PhD in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (SFU), and is also a graduate of the MA in Children’s Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia. He loves reading a wide range of literature, but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.