Lei and the Fire Goddess by Malia Maunakea is a rare gem in kid lit: an epic coming-of-age story written by a Native Hawaiian author featuring Native Hawaiian characters.
The story introduces us to twelve year old Lei, with all the joy and snarkiness and insecurity that are part of growing up. It didn’t take long for me to get into the story. From the very moment she steps off that airplane at Hilo airport, Lei is a fully developed, fully likeable character.
So are the secondary characters, especially Tūtū, ʻIlikea, Moʻo, Kamapuaʻa, and the formidable Pele. I won’t spoil it for you by revealing too much. Just know that the characters of Hawaiian legends come alive in the author’s vivid storytelling and are integral to Lei’s growing awareness and maturity.
There is so much I love about this book.
I loved Lei’s character arc, watching her grow, facing her fears, devising solutions, and facing the consequences. The exciting major scenes — between Lei and Kamapuaʻa, between Pele and Poliʻahu, the holua sled race — grab the reader and donʻt let go.
But even the quiet moments, such as Lei vowing not to share the waterfall on social media and later realizing why telescopes donʻt belong on Maunakea, speak volumes, especially to ʻōiwi readers.
I love how the language is geared to today’s audience without being dismissive of the memories and upbringing of the older readers the story might appeal to. The ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi is not a trope but a real storytelling device. For example, Tūtūʻs “close the mouth” line in an early scene is such a Hawaiian way of teaching and learning.
I loved what felt like inside jokes but are really evidence of the author’s authentic voice: KTA, the tin roof, Iz’s song, li hing mui snacks, pidgin. I love that the first hula that comes to Lei’s mind is the one we all learn as kids, Kahuli Aku. And I laughed out loud at the chapter titled “Ma-ke Die Dead.”
Now the elephant in the room. At first I was super nervous about Pele being a main character. Our kūpuna teach us to respect and revere her. There will always be traditionalists who feel the Pele story should never be retold in a modern voice.
Yet, for me, more than anything, I love how creative the story is. It’s respectful and authentic and adds to the Pele and Kamapuaʻa canon for today’s kids. Pele truly sounds like the goddess I grew up hearing about. That she becomes Lei’s frenemy is edgy and feels right.
Kids’ books by lived experience/own voices authors are so important. I am Native Hawaiian and grew up in the 1960s. There were no books – not one! – where the characters looked like me, did the things I did as a kid, ate the foods I ate, or used the pidgin I spoke. All kids deserve to see themselves in children’s lit.
This is why books like Lei and the Fire Goddess are so important. It’s a beautifully written, rollicking exciting-scary-funny story that kids everywhere will love. For all these reasons, LEI is a must-read.
Lei and the Fire Goddess
By Malia Maunakea
Penguin Random House
Suggested for ages 8 – 12
Mahalo to Sierra Pregosin at Penguin Random House for access to the galley!