Ho’onani: Hula Warrior – Heather Gale and Mika Song, Tundra Books, 2019
The tough and endearing hero of this unusual picture book is a gender nonconforming young person who wants nothing more than to be a strong individual within traditional Hawaiian culture. Ho’onani Kamai’s story is based on the same one explored in the documentary film, A Place in the Middle, but here it comes to life in a different genre. Children, and adults reading with them, will learn about Ho’onani’s commitment to the ideal of becoming a māhū, a person embodying qualities usually thought of as being either male or female. Heather Gale’s emphatic words express Ho’onani’s strengths in the face of opposition, and Mika Song’s eloquent pictures show the same message in a concrete way. This is a book about an important social issue, but it is not only about that issue. The story is also about personal conviction, and the need for support from everyone in the community.
The first fact readers learn about Ho’onani is that she refuses to conform to a single gender identity. The second is that her parents are proud of her, stating quite naturally that “She is who she is!” and “She does what she wants.” Ho’onani is excited about the teacher’s announcement that male students, “kānē,” will audition for a performance of traditional hula chants. Although Ho’onani is considered a “wahine,” female, this will not be an obstacle to participation. Ho’onani’s family is divided about her insistence on trying out, with an embarrassed sister, Kana, trying to undermine the bravery necessary to be different: “Kana rolled her eyes. ‘Really?’” is enough to introduce doubt to the scene.
Ho’onani’s most important role model is the teacher Kumu Hina, based on an actual Hawaiian transgender activist. Ho’onani stands quietly in the doorway, watching as the teacher evaluates the posture and the “warrior strength” of the young performers, who appear as a group to be somewhat less convincing than the “wahine” challenging their control.
One boy is slimmer and smaller, and another looks tentatively towards his teacher, anxiously waiting for his turn. They are not villains, just insecure kids afraid of losing their place in the gender hierarchy. Returning home, Ho’onani tests her own physical and spiritual abilities; author and illustrator capture this process in a remarkable picture and words.
Ho’onani understands on a very deep level that her performance will require “patience and practice.” The inside of her house becomes part of Hawaii’s magnificent natural setting, with a volcano erupting in the background as Ho’onani becomes part of the scene, “Hands dragging across her face, arms reaching for the sky.” Her ukulele lays quietly on the couch, and the family pictures on an end table remind readers how both nature and culture are part of Ho’onani’s identity.
Every child needs that moment of affirmation when her resolve might weaken. Kumu Hina is the realistic yet comforting adult who reminds Ho’onani that not everyone shares her humanistic ideal, and that less enlightened adults may respond with fear: “She said that some might not appreciate a wahine leading their sons up on stage.” Kumu Hina’s honesty is enough to help Ho’onani clarify her own beliefs and call upon her courage. Readers will thrill to the simplicity of Ho’onani’s credo: “’If someone wants to leave,’ she said, ‘that is their problem.’” The boys filing past in the background, and the empty pair of flip-flops left in the hallway, are pale and weak in comparison to Ho’onani’s profound sense of self as a hula warrior.
In Ho’onani: Hula Warrior, Ho’onani is not surrounded by bullies, nor even by terrified bystanders. Instead, the hero of the story is a young person who becomes immovable in her recognition that the world has a place for her and that she will take it, helped by those who share her faith in herself. The beautiful particularities of its Hawaiian setting are unique, but the message of being a warrior for acceptance and inclusion will resonate with everyone.