Hello readers and welcome to a very special post! I am delighted to welcome Heather Gale, the debut picture book author of Ho’onani: Hula Warrior (illustrated by Mika Song). Born in New Zealand and now living in Toronto with her family, Heather Gale is a former orthotist-turned-author (not to mention a recipe tester/cook and photographer)! Thanks to the generosity of the author and friends at Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada, I not only have an in-depth interview with Heather to share, but also a giveaway open to Canadian and US readers for a chance to win a copy of Ho’onani: Hula Warrior! Please read on for my thoughts on Ho’onani: Hula Warrior, the interview with Heather, resource links for educators, as well as information on how to enter the giveaway! Enjoy!
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.
From the introduction:
“In ancient Hawaiian culture, every person had a role in society. Māhū, people who embraced both feminine and masculine traits, were valued as healers and as caretakers and teachers of ancient traditions.”
Ho’onani Kamai did not see herself as a wahine, “girl”.
Or think she was a kāne, “boy”.
She preferred just Ho’onani.
Author Heather Gale and illustrator Mika Song (Picnic with Oliver) bring readers the children’s picture book Ho’onani: Hula Warrior, which is based on a true story and a real person named Ho’onani Kamai. When readers meet young Ho’onani, they learn that she doesn’t see herself as boy or girl: she is simply “just Ho’onani”. Her mother and her father support Ho’onani’s love of singing, playing the ukelele and being her own person, but her sister Kana “wished Ho’onani did not sing songs so loud or play ukulele faster and better than every kāne at school”. When it is announced that “a traditional hula chant” will be performed by the “high-school kāne”, Ho’onani closes her eyes and immediately imagines herself “stomp-stomp-stomping” and “tap-tap-tapping” and “pitter-pat-patting”. Ho’onani, however, is neither kāne nor old enough for high school! But when she hears that there will be auditions to perform (and lead) the hula chant, Ho’onani, with the support of her teacher Kumu Hina, prepares for the audition. During the tests, Ho’onani sees skepticism in the faces of the boys auditioning; she also cannot help but hear and see Kana’s confusion and disregard for her choices. Nonetheless, Ho’onani practices and practices; she practices “until Hawai’i’s history was part of her…hands dragging across her face, arms reaching for the sky…strong, sure, and steady”. During the final test, when the leader of the hula chant group is to be chosen, Ho’onani faces the group of boys leads “her warriors into a tidal wave of voices”. Prior to the night of the performance, Kumu Hina makes sure Ho’onani is aware of the push back or hesitation she may face from audience members not expecting (or supporting) a wahine to lead their kāne on stage. While Ho’onani considers Kumu Hina’s honesty, as well as her sister’s frustrations with Ho’onani being “in the middle”, she knows she must perform.
An affecting and sincere story that swells to a gorgeous finale, Ho’onani: Hula Warrior is a memorable and wonderfully assured read. Gale’s storytelling is kept incisive and clear, punctuated by powerful moments and the repetition of alliterative and rhythmic phrasing. With an opening ‘Author’s Note‘ as well as introduction, the background of Ho’onani’s story is laid out for the reader: this beautifully allows for Gale’s picture book adaptation to focus on Ho’onani, her strength in knowing who she is, her dreams of performance, and the happy restoration of Kana’s support and their bond. Mika Song’s watercolour and ink illustrations are lush, tonal, and vivid here: the spare and crisp dialogue and storytelling work perfectly in tandem with the sweeps of colour. Song’s illustrative spreads capture the larger scale landscape and setting, as well as Ho’onani’s expressive and determined face, her moments of uncertainty and her moments of power and joy. Honouring Hawaiian culture and traditions, and celebrating the power of (self) acceptance and bravely following one’s heart, Ho’onani: Hula Warrior is a picture book for reading aloud, sharing, and discussing.
Interview with Heather:
Ho’onani: Hula Warrior is based on a true story and on real people! Ho’onani Kamai’s story appeared in a 2015 documentary called Kumu Hina made by Hawaii-based filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson. The response from educators who watched Kumu Hina inspired the filmmakers to adapt the documentary into a shorter, more child-friendly film from the point of view of Ho’onani! This adaptation lead to the film A Place in the Middle which appeared at the Toronto Film Festival for Kids, and had its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival K+ Competition (resource links can be found below).
How and when did you first come across the story of Ho’onani Kamai?
I’m a bit of a geek, enjoy learning, and love to surprise my two grown sons and husband with a ‘did you know’ over dinner. Four years ago, after a day dedicated to research on the next possible story, I couldn’t quite switch off and decided, instead of a movie, I’d watch a documentary. A Place in the Middle intrigued me from the beginning. The title, the Hawaiian setting, and then a story about an eleven-year old girl all got my full attention!
What was it about the story that made you personally want to adapt it into a picture book?
Ho’onani has such a strength of character while remaining true to herself, no matter what. This makes it easy to root for her. You want her to succeed. If you get a chance to watch the documentary, the biggest reason I wanted to write this story is around the 20.50 mark. At that moment Ho’onani waits in thick silence for her community’s response. This scene is what we’ve all been waiting for and it evokes such intense emotions. Every single time I read this book out loud, two pages before this scene I start getting the goosebump-tingles. And the silly thing is, I know its part of the story!
What kinds of research goes into the adaptation of a true story into a picture book?
With a film beside you there is much greater opportunity to add emotions to the story yet research needs to still be done for authenticity. I wanted to know a lot more about Ho’onani’s teacher, Kumu Hina and the history behind Māhū, in Hawai’i. Many other cultures around the world have a third gender or two-spirited people who merge masculine and feminine roles. And then I looked at nature where genders also blend or change for survival in the animal kingdom.
In your process of writing and adapting Ho’onani’s story, did you have any early readers/sensitivity readers/educators read over drafts?
I did! The producers, Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson were my allies, supporting each draft with important and very necessary suggestions and explanations needed for authenticity. Kumu Hina was very much involved as well as Ho’onani and her family. Everyone wanted the story as accurate as possible.
What was the process like of finding an artist/illustrator for this picture book? Did you have a specific artist in mind for the project?
From the very beginning I had complete trust with my editor, Samantha Swenson. From the beginning she had an illustrator in mind and the moment I saw Mika Song’s previous artwork I agreed they’d found the right person for Ho’onani’s story.
Were you ever in touch with the filmmakers during your research of the book?
From the beginning, Dean and Joe took time out from their busy schedules to make this story the best it could be and with any questions I had for Ho’onani, they either knew the answer or got back to me. This worked extremely well.
How do you hope that educators, librarians or caregivers use Ho’onani’s story in and out of classrooms?
Tundra Books has an educational guide to help children explore the story’s illustrative layers with and without the words. Even though the story behind Ho’onani’s story is about Māhū, and Hawai’i’s history, it also has a common thread. Ho’onani: Hula Warrior touches on family and community, respecting, accepting, and including each other no matter how different we are.
Do you have any other information you would like to share about the book-making process or creating picture books?
I got into writing picture books to learn the art of structure. I already had two very rough novels drafted out because of the annual National November Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is an 20-year old internet based writing project designed to help authors push past their 50,000 words mark and is a lot of fun. I decided the best way to figure out how to revise these complete messes was through picture books. What’s interesting is, picture books are incredibly harder to write!
To cap off, I would love to hear about a favourite of 2019- whether a book, film, or podcast- and in any genre!
While out walking the dogs, I’ve become a huge audiobook fan and my latest favourite read was (David) Benioff’s City of Thieves. The accents were perfect, the humor balanced the atrocities while the plot was amazing. Set in Russia during WWII, two imprisoned men are released to find a dozen fresh eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake in order to have their lives spared – an impossible quest.
Thank you so much Heather!
Links for Educators:
A Place in the Middle documentary produced by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson:
Educator’s Guide (PDF) from Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada, created by school librarian and former Newbery Award Committee Chair Kathleen Odean, with Heather Gale and Mika Song:
One (1) winner will receive: one (1) copy of Ho’onani: Hula Warrior by Heather Gale and Mika Song
Giveaway open to Canada and US. The giveaway will be open from November 11, 2019 to November 25, 2019. The winning entry will be randomly drawn via Rafflecopter, and the winner will have 48 hours to get in touch with me via email, Twitter, or Facebook confirming their CAN or US mailing address or another entry will be drawn.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own. Title has been published and is currently available. Thank you to author Heather Gale for her generosity and time. Giveaway prizing fulfilled by Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada.