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Ho’onani: Hula Warrior

April 4, 2020

In honor of School Library Month, I am featuring book reviews from young library science students from the University of Washington’s iSchool in Seattle, WA.  Books featured in this blog are picture, middle grade and young adult titles that are not only appropriate for the middle school reader in today’s world, but necessary, for the up and coming review feature the cutting-edge of voices in BIPOC populations that often don’t get an opportunity to be heard in the text of books intended for today’s youth.  This first book is a nonfiction picture book meant for much younger youth.  The powerful lesson of third-gender acceptance, however, provides the background for critical thought by all on the acceptance of others.

ISBN 978-0735264496.  Grades PreK-2.  Tundra Books.  October 1, 2019.  40pp.  $21.99 Hdc.  Ho’onani:  Hula Warrior.
Heather Gale and Mika Song’s Ho’onani: Hula Warrior is the story of a girl who identifies as between masculine (kane) and feminine (wahine) roles, and finds acceptance through traditional Hawaiian culture. Ho’onani does not feel like a boy or a girl, and with the support of her teacher Kumu Hina and her parents, she tries out for a traditionally male role in a school-produced hula chant. This causes a minor conflict between her sister, who urges her to accept traditional gender roles, and auditioning boys who are shocked to see a girl trying out.
Ho’onani: Hula Warrior is based on the true story of Ho’onani Kamai and her teacher Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu (a transgender identified person, herself) as featured in the documentary, A Place in the Middle.

The traditional pledge of Aloha is an example as to why third-gender people are highly regarded within indigenous Hawaiian culture.

The front matter explains this, and the traditional Hawaiian term for a person who embraces both masculine and feminine traits, “māhū”.  However, some of the concepts from the front matter do not appear in the main text itself, but could be used for supplemental instruction, or follow-up by an adult reader or storytime librarian.


The illustrator, Mika Song, is a former animator, and the illustrations look like storyboards, or concept art, for an animated film by Disney/Pixar; with a brushy watercolor style, that is both to the book’s credit and its detriment. The images are, with one or two exceptions, purely illustrative of the text and do not add much imaginatively to the work, and are classically composed; but in some cases the concept-design/storyboard aesthetic appears spare or sketchy in ways that do not serve the narrative. However, the expressive use of solid line and color strongly evoke character emotions, and the varied use of color values plays a role in centralizing Ho’onani and Kumu Hina as the most important figures in each image, through a strong use of color contrast and saturation.  Ho’onani: Hula Warrior nevertheless offers an excellent view of gender identities and acceptance in Native Hawaiian culture.
ISBN 978-0735264496.  Grades PreK-2.  Tundra Books.  October 1, 2019.  40pp.  $21.99 Hdc.  Ho’onani:  Hula Warrior.
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