Interview with Native Hawaiian Interactive Media Designer Kēhau Noe

Kehau-Noe

Native Hawai­ian vision­ary Kēhau Noe is an artist and sto­ry­tellerKehau-Noe. Her media is com­put­ers, and her mis­sion is to design pro­grams that help peo­ple to inter­act with and learn from the environment.

The chal­lenge of build­ing soft­ware or games that take advan­tage of what tech­nol­o­gy affords us, but still be acces­si­ble and use­ful to the gen­er­al per­son is fun to me. Soft­ware can be capa­ble of per­form­ing com­plex and seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble tasks, but if the aver­age per­son does not like to look at it, or can’t under­stand how to inter­face it, then not many peo­ple will use it.

Her inno­v­a­tive sto­ry­telling immers­es view­ers in the Native Hawai­ian world view. We are pleased to fea­ture this trail­blaz­er on our blog today.

For those who havenʻt met you yet, could you please tell us a lit­tle about yourself?

I’m Kari Kēhaulani Noe, I usu­al­ly go by Kari or Kēhau. I was born and raised on Kauaʻi and moved to Oʻahu to go to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa for my under­grad­u­ate degree to major in both Ani­ma­tion and Com­put­er Sci­ence. I am now pur­su­ing a PhD in Com­put­er Sci­ence at UHM. I work as a research assis­tant at the Lab­o­ra­to­ry for Advanced Visu­al­iza­tion and Appli­ca­tions (LAVA) where I also co-lead Create(x), a sis­ter-lab man­aged by both LAVA and the Acad­e­my of Cre­ative Media (ACM) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of West Oʻahu. I also work as an Indige­nous Tech Spe­cial­ist at the Office of Indige­nous Knowl­edge and Inno­va­tion. I also have my own stu­dio, Stu­dio Ahilele, where I work on cre­ative projects and col­lab­o­ra­tions on the side.

In my per­son­al life I love nerdy things. I often will be draw­ing comics, try­ing out some kind of art form (I’m learn­ing carv­ing at the moment), and play­ing video games in my free time. I also love hula and have been study­ing ʻōle­lo Hawai’i. 

Where did you grow up? What high school did you grad from?

I grew up in Kalāheo, where most of my time was spent hang­ing out some­where in the west or south side of the island as that is where most of my fam­i­ly lives. And of course Līhuʻe as that is the main town and where my high school is. I grad­u­at­ed from Kauaʻi High School.

Go Red Raiders! What are your goals for the Create(X) lab you co-lead and for your research? 

My goal for Create(x) is for it to be a space where stu­dents can devel­op emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy sys­tems and soft­ware that aug­ment spaces in ways that change how we inter­act with com­put­ers both for research and enter­tain­ment pur­pos­es. The core goal is to teach stu­dents skills in immer­sive design, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and pro­gram­ming so that they may cre­ate inno­va­tions that enhance their prac­tice, whether they are a sto­ry­teller, sci­en­tist, or artist. We wel­come and engage in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research with part­ners to under­stand how tech devel­oped at the lab can be used to sup­port projects and prac­tices out­side the walls of our lab. 

Ilio
Image: Ilio VR App @ Create(x) Lab, Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu

What kinds of skills are required for your role? How did you acquire them?

The major skills I have are in design and pro­gram­ming. I devel­oped skills in visu­al design from my time as an under­grad­u­ate at the Acad­e­my of Cre­ative Media at UH Mānoa. Grow­ing up, I always loved to draw, but through my time as an under­grad­u­ate I gained a foun­da­tion in use­ful skills such as dig­i­tal art tech­niques, 3D mod­el­ing, and dif­fer­ent tech­niques in ani­ma­tion that to this day is a large part of the work that I do. I learned pro­gram­ming from my edu­ca­tion in Com­put­er Sci­ence at UH Mānoa, where I have done my Bach­e­lors, Mas­ters, and now PhD in. With­out all of these skills, I could not devel­op the projects that I do. I want­ed to become a video game devel­op­er when I start­ed uni­ver­si­ty, which is why I tried learn­ing skills from all parts of the process because I did not know exact­ly what I want­ed to do. In the end being a jack-of-all trades has helped me immensely. 

The oth­er impor­tant skill is orga­ni­za­tion. I think I got that skill from watch­ing my mom who is a very orga­nized per­son and runs her own busi­ness. With­out hav­ing good orga­ni­za­tion and effi­cient process­es it would be very hard to imple­ment the projects we work on, even if we some­how had the world’s best artists and pro­gram­mers on the project.

What was the jour­ney to becom­ing an inter­ac­tive media design­er? Why did you choose such a unique career? How did you know that this is what you want­ed to do? 

I was actu­al­ly going to go to uni­ver­si­ty enrolled in Trav­el Indus­try Man­age­ment. I was put in the AOHT (Acad­e­my of Hos­pi­tal­i­ty of Tourism) track in high school. It wasn’t my first choice, but I did enjoy my teach­ers and class­mates on the track. My expe­ri­ence with that, and from advice from coun­selors, I was con­vinced that if I want­ed a good job and to stay in Hawaiʻi I should aim to be some­thing like a hotel man­ag­er. How­ev­er, I was also tak­ing Japan­ese when I was a senior, and we had a project where we could design any form of media for our project as long as every­thing was in Japan­ese. This became an excuse to try to learn how to devel­op a video game. I made a lit­tle RPG on Construct2. That is when I want­ed to become a game devel­op­er, and I think in like a month or two before I start­ed uni­ver­si­ty I man­aged to change my major to both ACM and Com­put­er Science.

While I was in uni­ver­si­ty I took Dr. Jason Leigh’s video game design class. It was at this time LAVA was first being devel­oped because Dr. Leigh was new­ly hired. As time went on, I hung around LAVA and even­tu­al­ly got hired there as an under­grad­u­ate research assis­tant. It was through my expe­ri­ence at LAVA that made me see there are more path­ways than just becom­ing a video game devel­op­er. So now I am here where I am today.

We are very glad you did­n’t study TIM! What do you enjoy most about your career? What are some of your great­est challenges?

What I enjoy most is design­ing things. The gen­er­al process of brain­storm­ing, plan­ning, and cre­at­ing is one of my great­est joys in life. It could be as sim­ple as design­ing my desk space to design­ing the com­plex projects we imple­ment at the lab. The joy of my career is that I am able to design things that can enrich and sup­port our lāhui. For instance, work­ing at the Office of Indige­nous Knowl­edge and Inno­va­tion means that the projects I work on include com­mu­ni­ty co-design and impact. We have inten­tions of devel­op­ing and uti­liz­ing emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy to aid in the devel­op­ment of process­es and actions to improve envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship and heal land in ways that align with ances­tral prac­tice and values.

I believe the great­est chal­lenge is time and capac­i­ty. I wish I had more time in the day to work on projects, and had more capac­i­ty to work on the myr­i­ad of pono projects that are in var­i­ous stages of devel­op­ment in Hawaiʻi. That is why I am focused on hold­ing space for teach­ing and not just research. I believe if there were more peo­ple from Hawaiʻi who had sim­i­lar skills that I have learned and a pas­sion for cul­ti­vat­ing abun­dance for both land and peo­ple, we could devel­op great things. In Hawaiʻi there is no short­age of peo­ple who alo­ha ‘āina. How­ev­er, there is only a small com­mu­ni­ty of us that also have skills in immer­sive and inter­ac­tive design and the capac­i­ty to hold those types of careers since the cost of liv­ing con­tin­ues to rise here. I try to take my own action as well as sup­port ini­tia­tives that will make these skills more acces­si­ble to stu­dents and devel­op an indus­try for this sort of work. 

Cepheus
Image: Kilo Hīkō VR @ Wayfind­ing Interactive

Where do you get your inspirations?

The typ­i­cal places: my fam­i­ly, friends, teach­ers, and Hawaiʻi itself. When times are hard I have always turned to spend­ing time in a good sto­ry whether through a book, video game, or movie; talk­ing sto­ry with beloved peo­ple; or spend­ing time in famil­iar places such as my favorite beach­es or places in the moun­tains. Doing these things is refresh­ing and brings me the inspi­ra­tion to con­tin­ue work­ing and brings new ideas and per­spec­tive to my work.

Of your many suc­cess­es, which project or accom­plish­ment are you most proud of?

It’s hard to say I’m proud of any of my accom­plish­ments. As an artist, I do fall in the com­mon feel­ing of “things could have been done bet­ter.” Often my feel­ings are more like I’m thank­ful that it hap­pened. The work I do is com­plex in that it can’t be built by a sin­gle per­son. I may be the one who can take cred­it for devel­op­ing a piece of soft­ware, but held with­in most of our projects are data, knowl­edge, and sto­ries col­lect­ed by oth­ers such as com­mu­ni­ty experts, sci­en­tists, or cul­tur­al prac­ti­tion­ers. With­out the will­ing­ness to share that knowl­edge, these projects wouldn’t exist. So I’m thank­ful for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work with oth­ers and I sup­pose I am proud that they trust me. I aim to con­tin­ue to devel­op and per­pet­u­ate prac­tices to earn and hon­or that trust.

Can you share a bit of a cur­rent project?

A cur­rent project that I am work­ing on is called the Makawalu Edi­tor (for now, it’s a work­ing title). I can’t talk too much about the details as it is still in devel­op­ment, but it essen­tial­ly is an inter­face to visu­al­ize envi­ron­men­tal data using a tan­gi­ble inter­face. It grew from a project that was devel­oped at LAVA in col­lab­o­ra­tion with HECO called the Pro­ject­Table 2.0. A pro­to­type of this sys­tem was recent­ly used as a part of an intern­ship run by the Office Indige­nous Knowl­edge and Inno­va­tion and Mala­ma Puʻu­loa. The interns learned the basics of ArcGIS and sto­ry maps to tell their own sto­ries con­nect­ed to the land they helped care for dur­ing the time of their intern­ship. The Edi­tor was used to help visu­al­ize their maps.

Your projects have includ­ed design­ing apps and “seri­ous games.” What are some of these? What does suc­cess of these projects look like to you?

For me, the suc­cess of any project is if it devel­ops some sort of knowl­edge or capac­i­ty in the play­er. For instance, for Kilo Hōkū VR, where we devel­oped a VR appli­ca­tion to teach the basics of mod­ern Hawai­ian wayfind­ing prac­tices, the suc­cess for me was pro­vid­ing an alter­na­tive to study­ing in cas­es where stu­dents may not have access to clear skies or a planetarium.

Wao Kiʻi, a project I devel­oped for my master’s the­sis, aimed to be a tool to learn basic Hawai­ian envi­ron­men­tal vocab­u­lary with­out using Eng­lish. This is done through a character’s fea­tures and attrib­ut­es that change based on where tiles with Hawai­ian words or phras­es are placed. So for exam­ple, if you place an ʻiʻi­wi tile onto the board, the char­ac­ter will turn into an ʻiʻi­wi. If you place a lele tile onto the board, the char­ac­ter will start to fly. This cre­ates the con­nec­tion between the word and its mean­ing. A fur­ther con­nec­tion is made as in Wao Kiʻi, the scene you are in deter­mines the vocab­u­lary that is pre­sent­ed to the user. So for instance, if the scene is meant to resem­ble Waini­ha Val­ley on Kaua’i, the vocab­u­lary will be relat­ed to a spe­cif­ic place rather than gen­er­al Hawai­ian words. In this way, this devel­op­ment of under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between words, mean­ing, and place is what I con­sid­er a success.

The ulti­mate mea­sure of suc­cess is acces­si­bil­i­ty. This is a met­ric I’m still try­ing to work on improv­ing. Lots of what I work on is inac­ces­si­ble due to the tech it’s cre­at­ed on, but slow­ly things are changing.

Interactive-display
Image: Kilo Hōkū @ Wayfind­ing Interactive

How do you avoid let­ting the pres­sures of inno­va­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty over­whelm you?

Try­ing to be inno­v­a­tive and cre­ative to me is a joy, and I think I have had enough fail­ures in my life that I’m not afraid of it. I also don’t feel the pres­sure that any project has to be my mag­num opus, because there is no way of know­ing what that will be until it hap­pens. Some­times what I think would be a stel­lar idea is actu­al­ly my worst one in prac­tice. I enjoy the ride, and if it doesn’t work out, that only means I know how to do bet­ter next time.

What are your hopes and dreams for the year and beyond in terms of your career and what you would like to send out into the world in the future?

For this next year(-ish) my hopes and dreams revolve around fin­ish­ing my dis­ser­ta­tion. There is a lot I put on pause to final­ly get that last fan­cy paper. Once I get that degree my hope is to con­tin­ue to be work­ing in a place where I can be in a posi­tion to con­tin­ue design­ing tech­nolo­gies and sys­tems that sup­port com­mu­ni­ty abun­dance, knowl­edge, and heal­ing. I also want to be able to pass on the skills that I’ve learned so that in the future there will be many local stu­dents who can do what I do and do it bet­ter. Togeth­er they can take advan­tage of what­ev­er emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy devel­ops in the future and use it to also cre­ate abun­dance and capac­i­ty in a pono way.

Do you have any expe­ri­ences as a woman of col­or in your field that you might share with our read­ers? What would you like to see change in the indus­try regard­ing the accep­tance of BIPOC creators?

In my indus­try there should be more women & BIPOC. That’s still where we are at. In Hawaiʻi I think we have a lot more POC com­pared to oth­er places, but in my per­cep­tion there is still a lack of women and Indige­nous com­put­er sci­en­tists con­sid­er­ing the pop­u­la­tion of Hawaiʻi and the DEI ini­tia­tives that exist. In my expe­ri­ence, I do try to make an extra effort to help women, Indige­nous, & LGBTQ+ stu­dents where I can (rec­om­mend­ing them to posi­tions, advis­ing on fund­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties, get­ting them access to lab space). But often what lim­its these stu­dents are two things:

  1. life cir­cum­stances that com­mon­ly affect a per­son based on their background
  2. the inevitable stress and tur­moil from being a minority.

I’ve had younger stu­dents who, for instance, don’t have as strong finan­cial sup­port from par­ents due to mul­ti­ple rea­sons, which means that the stu­dent has to take on extra work to be able to make a liv­ing wage, which lim­its the time they can ded­i­cate to their stud­ies and abil­i­ty to do extra cur­ric­u­lar work that would help them devel­op as pro­fes­sion­al. So they get left behind or have to drop out totally.

Per­son­al­ly in my expe­ri­ence I have dealt with things such as:

  • giv­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion about a project that involved Hawai­ian cul­tur­al ideas and prac­tice, and the first response from the audi­ence was some­one mak­ing an inap­pro­pri­ate joke about Hawaiians.
  • peo­ple when I bring up projects like Wao Ki’i that teach ‘ōle­lo Hawai’i, their response is “Is Hawai­ian a real lan­guage? Like can you have full con­ver­sa­tions in it?”
  • being asked mul­ti­ple times by the same per­son “You devel­oped this?”
  • class­mates not let­ting you do any of the work on class projects because “it’s ok, they can just do it”  and so on.

I think that these sorts of chal­lenges and headaches are not unique to Com­put­er Sci­ence but many oth­er fields. All I can say is that the most impor­tant thing is to find your com­mu­ni­ty. Hav­ing friends and col­leagues that share your hopes, val­ues, and strug­gles is the best way to be able to weath­er any cir­cum­stance and sit­u­a­tion that may come your way. When the weath­er gets rough, you can keep each oth­er afloat.

Wao-Kiʻi
Image: Wao Kiʻi Vir­tu­al Envi­ron­ment @ Create(x) Lab, Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu

What beliefs is your work challenging?

I think that by work­ing in the spaces that I do, I’m prov­ing that tech is not out of reach for any group or com­mu­ni­ty. When I give demos to peo­ple, they often ask where I went to high school. They then take a guess like, “Puna­hou? Kame­hame­ha?” I then laugh because I went to pub­lic school on an out­er island for my entire life. They have an assump­tion that I must be a pri­vate school grad to do the lev­el and kind of work I do.

I also think that my work also chal­lenges the notion that Indige­nous knowl­edge and tech­nol­o­gy do not mix. In my opin­ion, Kāna­ka Maoli have always been tech enthu­si­asts. From tak­ing advan­tage of the print­ing press to installing elec­tri­cal infra­struc­ture; I think our kupuna were good at see­ing new tech­nol­o­gy, quick­ly mak­ing it their own, and using it to their advan­tage. This is not to say we need to adopt every new tech­nol­o­gy; we still have to gauge what is pono. But gen­er­al­ly I get the feel­ing that, espe­cial­ly peo­ple not from Hawaiʻi, think Kāna­ka Maoli are anti-tech and anti-sci­ence. They couldn’t be more wrong, and I think (and tru­ly hope) projects we devel­op help them see that. And if not, we will keep build­ing great things regardless.

What advice would you give a stu­dent inter­est­ed in join­ing your field?

Gen­er­al­ly: Find what inter­ests you and stick with it, even when things feel dif­fi­cult. Learn­ing skills in both art and pro­gram­ming is like rid­ing a bike through an area with a lot of hills. At first it’s hard while you try to learn foun­da­tion­al skills. It will feel like cycling up a hill. But then your under­stand­ing will click into place and you will feel like you’re coast­ing down. Then you begin to learn a new more advanced top­ic, and yet again there is anoth­er hill to climb. Learn how to enjoy the ride and chal­lenge. Make sure you find some bud­dies that will ride with you. Learn when to get off your bike and walk to go easy on your­self. Push your bud­dies up the hill when they need it, and let them help you when you need it.

Specif­i­cal­ly: Go down­load a game engine like Unity3D, Unre­al, or Godot. Go down­load Blender. Think of an easy game idea, like pong, pin­ball, space invaders, etc. Look up tuto­ri­als and try to build your idea. You will start to under­stand what it takes to make a game when you attempt to make one. See which parts that you like, what parts that you can’t stand, and what parts you feel excit­ed to improve on. From there you will dis­cov­er if you will like this field, and what part of the process you may want to focus on. This will deter­mine if maybe you are more of an engi­neer, artist, or pro­duc­tion man­ag­er sort of per­son. Go find oth­ers that are doing this. I can’t empha­size this enough, hav­ing com­mu­ni­ty is important. 

What’s your online pres­ence like? Are you on social media? 

I’m a com­put­er sci­en­tist who is awful at social media. But I do lurk there. Because I’m not very active I don’t get many mes­sages. I’m try­ing to change this. For those who know me, they know how often I say, “Oh I prob­a­bly should have tak­en a picture/video of this.”

And niele ques­tions, if youʻd like to answer:

Who is your biggest supporter?

My part­ner and my fam­i­ly. I try to be on top of my game when I am at work and in pub­lic. So when I get home I am often act­ing goofy and tired. I am thank­ful for their patience.

What’s your favorite mem­o­ry of grow­ing up on Kauaʻi?

Rain. It feels like it rarely rains on O’ahu (at least where I live). I miss wak­ing up the sound of the wind blow­ing the rain against my win­dow. I often miss the smell. I also am fond of the mem­o­ries of my broth­er, friends, and I just wan­der­ing around as kids. We would go walk through fields and col­lect bugs and things. We would feed flow­ers to someone’s cows. We’d steal eggs from chick­ens. We would dig a giant hole in the sand for no rea­son oth­er than to mar­vel that we dug a big hole.

What’s your favorite app? Which app do you wish you could’ve had a hand in creating?

I wouldn’t want to cre­ate any of the apps I enjoy, because if I had a hand in cre­at­ing it I’d be much more crit­i­cal of it and may not enjoy it. I real­ly like an app called Notion. It helps both in work and just keep­ing track of things that I like.

This was so cool, Kēhau! Maha­lo nui loa for shar­ing your man­aʻo with us!

To learn more about Kēhau Noe and her work at the Create(X) lab at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaiʻi at West Oʻahu, vis­it her web­site at KehauNoe.com.

Images cour­tesy of Kēhau Noe.

Book Review: Punky Aloha, by Shar Tuiʻasoa

Punky Aloha

 

It’s a fact of the mar­ket­place that many pic­ture books with the unfor­tu­nate tim­ingPunky Aloha of being released dur­ing the COVID pan­dem­ic were often not giv­en the atten­tion they deserved.

And that’s real­ly too bad, because they mer­it space on our bookshelves.

Punky Alo­ha, the debut pic­ture book by tal­ent­ed author/illustrator Shar Tuiʻa­soa, is one of these hid­den gems. Released in mid-2020 dur­ing the height of the pan­dem­ic, Punky is just the kind of delight­ful sto­ry kids — and their grown-ups — will love.

We meet lit­tle Punky Alo­ha with her best friend, her grand­moth­er. They love to go on all kinds of fun escapades togeth­er. Punky tell us that she was­n’t always the brave adven­tur­er she is now.

It all began, Punky says, with a fresh­ly baked loaft of grand­ma’s banana bread. Need­ing but­ter to slather on the top of the loaf, Grand­ma sends her to the near­by mar­ket to pick some up for her.

Feel­ing a bit fear­ful of going by her­self (“If I go to the mar­ket, I’m sure to bump into some­one new. And when­ev­er I bump into some­one, I start to feel shy,” Punky con­fess­es), lit­tle Punky hes­i­tates, until her grand­moth­er gives her a pair of bright yel­low “mag­i­cal” sun­glass­es that will help her meet the task at hand.

Before Punky leaves, Grand­ma reminds Punky to show her alo­ha by being help­ful, giv­ing, and brave to all she meets.

And so Punky’s big adven­ture begins. Using her wits — and her alo­ha — Punky over­comes her shy­ness to help those she meets on the way to the mar­ket. At the end of the book, Punky and her grand­ma are right­ly proud of her­self, and she is reward­ed with a big dose of con­fi­dence … and a thick slice of banana bread with melt­ing butter.

Punky-Aloha
Illus­tra­tion © Shar Tuia­soa from Punky Alo­ha by Shar Tuia­soa (Harper­Collins, 2022)

I love this book. The inter­gen­er­a­tional sto­ry is charm­ing. The inter­ac­tion between Punky and her grand­ma is warm and sweet.

Ulti­mate­ly, Punky Alo­ha res­onates with kids. They don’t have to be Poly­ne­sian girls to see them­selves in her, a kind, car­ing, adven­tur­ous character.

And did I men­tion that the book is gor­geous? Fea­tur­ing Shar’s trade­mark trop­i­cal col­ors, the illus­tra­tions are vibrant greens, reds, oranges, yel­lows, and blues. Punky her­self is adorable with her messy chignon (a won­der­ful “tita bun”), slip­pers, and skate­board. Each spread is so beau­ti­ful that I bought a sec­ond copy of the book just so I tear the pages out and frame them to dec­o­rate the bed­room of my own lit­tle Punky Alo­ha, my five year old granddaughter. 

Punky-Aloha-spread01
Illus­tra­tion © Shar Tuia­soa from Punky Alo­ha by Shar Tuia­soa (Harper­Collins, 2022)

I wish Shar’s pub­lish­er had encour­aged her to pro­vides enrich­ment activ­i­ties around Punky Alo­ha. The book eas­i­ly sug­gests oppor­tu­ni­ties for those seek­ing sto­ry­telling from diverse and under­rep­re­sent­ed voic­es, includ­ing class­room activ­i­ties around the mean­ing of alo­ha. Teach­ers, librar­i­ans, and fam­i­lies can incor­po­rate the book’s theme of social and emo­tion­al learn­ing as Punky demon­strates skills that all kids need to meet challenges. 

For so many rea­sons, Punky Alo­ha is a must read.

Punky Alo­ha
Writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Shar Tuiʻa­soa 
Harper­Collins, 2020
ISBN 978–006379236
Sug­gest­ed for ages 4 — 8 

Meet author/illustrator Shar Tuiʻa­soa in our talk-sto­ry inter­view. Punky Alo­ha and all of Sharʻs gor­geous col­lectible illus­tra­tions and prints are avail­able at Punky Alo­ha Stu­dio.

Images from Brown Baby Books. Please read our dis­claimer to learn our book review pol­i­cy. Mahalo!

Interview with Illustrator Jing Jing Tsong

Jing-Jing-Tsong

Jing-Jing-Tsong

Tal­ent­ed pic­ture book illus­tra­tor Jing Jing Tsong is a mas­ter at her craft. Influ­enced by the prin­ci­ples of mono­print and tra­di­tion­al stone lith­o­g­ra­phy, Jing Jing lay­ers col­ors and tex­tures to cre­ate images that are engag­ing and com­pelling. Their visu­al and emo­tion­al appeal com­mu­ni­cate a visu­al expe­ri­ence for young read­ers and their grown-ups. “In every­thing I prac­tice,” she says, “I explore the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of being.”

We are very pleased to talk sto­ry with illus­tra­tor Jing Jing Tsong.

Wel­come, Jing Jing! For those who haven’t met you, could you please tell us a lit­tle about yourself?

I am an ama­teur musi­cian (cel­lo and stand-up bass), a per­ma­nent grom (begin­ner surfer), and a writer and illus­tra­tor. To me, these inter­ests are inextricable—they influ­ence how I approach my life—finding flow, con­nec­tion and being ready to improvise.

Where did you grow up? Who do you con­sid­er to be your biggest supporter?

I grew up in a small col­lege town in cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia. Because of my dad’s work (physics researcher) our fam­i­ly had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to live in West Berlin for a year and then Albu­querque, NM, for a summer.

Bucket-of-BlessingsThere have been many “biggest” sup­port­ers in dif­fer­ent phas­es of my life. But over­all, it is def­i­nite­ly my hus­band, Michael Austin (who is also a writer/illustrator). We met each oth­er in the Graph­ic Design pro­gram at Penn State. For many years we were rock climb­ing partners—we had to trust each oth­er in belay­ing and being ready to take up the slack in the rope if one of us fell. Cre­ative­ly, when I feel I am falling or feel that I am fail­ing, I trust Mike to catch me or pick me up and encour­age me.

Your rela­tion­ship sounds amaz­ing. Why did you become an illus­tra­tor? Did you always knew you could cre­ate art?

Hon­est­ly, one of the rea­sons I start­ed to focus on illus­tra­tion was because I was burned out on being the Art Direc­tor of the design stu­dio that Michael and I were part­ners in. Michael left the busi­ness first and com­mit­ted to illus­tra­tion full-time. Even­tu­al­ly, when we sold our busi­ness, we took a year long sab­bat­i­cal where I recon­nect­ed with fam­i­ly and my cre­ative self. I worked on devel­op­ing an illus­tra­tion port­fo­lio and at the end of the year, declared myself an Illus­tra­tor. Look­ing back, it seems rather auda­cious to make such a life piv­ot. Luck­i­ly, there was no one to tell us we couldn’t, so it worked out well. But full disclosure—I did jug­gle free­lance design work, teach­ing and play­ing my cel­lo at dozens of wed­dings, before I actu­al­ly prac­ticed illus­tra­tion full-time.

Aloha-ZooI nev­er thought I COULDN’T be an artist. My mom used to bring us to the library every week­end for sto­ry time and then to replen­ish our stack of books for the week. I loved pic­ture books and read them well past the time I was an “advanced” read­er. After din­ner, we often sat around the table as a fam­i­ly and drew and copied things from books. Because my par­ents loved bal­let, I drew a lot of dancers! My dad had an easel set up in the tiny space by the wash­er and dry­er. He exper­i­ment­ed with abstract paint­ing. My child­hood seems to be a col­lage of visu­al expe­ri­ences and cre­at­ing art seemed as nat­ur­al as eat­ing or breathing.

What do you enjoy most about cre­at­ing art? What are some of your great­est challenges?

The thing I love most is that any­thing is possible—I am the only to tell myself I can’t.

 The great­est chal­lenge is not let­ting all the amaz­ing work I see on social media dis­tract me from my own journey.

Your art is so expres­sive and col­or­ful. If you had to choose a favorite project, which would it be and why?

My favorite project is usu­al­ly the most cur­rent one.

Before-We-MetThe one on my draw­ing table now, is a mid­dle-grade graph­ic nov­el I’ve been work­ing on for the past 7 years. I actu­al­ly have sketch­es for ini­tial explo­rations that date back 12 years! It start­ed out as a pic­ture-book, but my edi­tor sug­gest­ed it would be stronger as a graph­ic nov­el. She and my agent took great care in guid­ing me through this chal­leng­ing and, at times, intim­i­dat­ing path. The sto­ry went from 32 to 90 to almost 200 pages.

When it comes out (hope­ful­ly Spring 2024), it will be my debut as a writer. Iron­i­cal­ly, even though I am known for my col­or­ful work, my true love is black and white work. I had a chance to indulge myself in black and white draw­ings which reflect an impor­tant con­cept in the sto­ry. I use col­or spar­ing­ly. What start­ed out as a sto­ry on an expe­ri­ence of being bul­lied, evolved into a lov­ing explo­ration of a young girl find­ing her place in her fam­i­ly and how that allows her embrace her dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties into a true expres­sion of self.

We’re look­ing for­ward to your graph­ic nov­el! What are your hopes and dreams for the year and beyond in terms of your artis­tic career and what you would like to see pub­lished in the future?

I see illus­tra­tion and writ­ing as a life prac­tice. I hope I con­tin­ue to learn and cre­ate stronger work. I’ve illus­trat­ed over 20 pic­ture books. In the future, I’d like to illus­trate more of my own man­u­scripts. I hope that what­ev­er I put out in the world will help some­one under­stand their con­nec­tion to their world in a joy­ful way.

Do you have any expe­ri­ences as a woman of col­or illus­tra­tor that you might share with our read­ers? What would you like to see change in the indus­try regard­ing the accep­tance of BIPOC illus­tra­tors and writers?

Pele-Finds-A-HoneOnce I received a man­u­script where a descrip­tion in the vein of “Ori­en­tal grace” was used to describe some­thing. It def­i­nite­ly raised my hack­les, and I reviewed it with my sis­ters to see if they felt the same. They rein­forced my feel­ings, and I was able to address it with the edi­tor who then addressed it with the writer.

Over­all, I’m excit­ed to be in pub­lish­ing dur­ing a time of pos­i­tive change. There is still a lot of work to do, but I feel there are many peo­ple in the pic­ture-book com­mu­ni­ty active­ly seek­ing under-rep­re­sent­ed peo­ple to share their stories.

Because my par­ents grew up in a time where their moth­er tongue, Tai­wanese, was banned by 2 dif­fer­ent occu­pa­tions, I am always thrilled to see work that sup­ports and cel­e­brates indige­nous lan­guages. With­out these lan­guages, we’re in dan­ger of los­ing sto­ries that are essen­tial to our under­stand­ing of tra­di­tions and his­to­ries. I’m hon­ored to be part of one such project, the Hawai­ian Leg­ends for Lit­tle Ones by Gabrielle Ahuli’i, pub­lished by Beach­house Pub­lish­ing, comes out in an ‘Ōle­lo Hawai’i  edi­tion this spring.

What beliefs is your work challenging?

Instead of “chal­leng­ing” I think of my work as “encour­ag­ing.”  I hope my work encour­ages peo­ple to think of them­selves as parts of com­mu­ni­ties that extend beyond geo­graph­ic and polit­i­cal bor­ders. I hope that what I put into the world encour­ages peo­ple to take the time to lis­ten and watch and seek expe­ri­ences that broad­en perspectives.

Where do you get your inspirations?

Shanghai-SukkahMy local library is one of my favorite places to pro­cras­ti­nate. I love the ran­dom­ness of scan­ning shelves and find­ing unex­pect­ed trea­sures. I also like lis­ten­ing to dif­fer­ent kinds of music and have my sis­ters and son and daugh­ter for intro­duc­ing me to aur­al treats I may not have found on my own.

In addi­tion to books, what oth­er kinds of art do you do?

I like to exper­i­ment with dif­fer­ent mate­ri­als. Last year, I carved my own pens out of bam­boo and cre­at­ed ink from black­ber­ries. This year, I’ve been exper­i­ment­ing with intaglio print­ing using lids from plas­tic con­tain­ers and scratch­ing images with a sewing nee­dle. I real­ly want to get into pottery!

Can you share a bit about what you’re work­ing on next?

I’m work­ing on illus­tra­tions for a count­ing book about deli­cious things. All I can say is that every time I start sketch­ing, I get hungry!

What advice would you give an aspir­ing illustrator?

Join your local chap­ter of Soci­ety of Children’s Book Writ­ers and Illus­tra­tors, join a cri­tique group. The chap­ter I belong to (West­ern Wash­ing­ton) is so sup­port­ive, and I am con­stant­ly inspired by the gen­eros­i­ty and phe­nom­e­nal sup­port of this community.

What’s your online pres­ence? What do your fol­low­ers say?

You can find my illus­tra­tion here: www.jingjingtsong.com . I’m incon­sis­tent on IG (occa­sion­al­ly shar­ing my cre­ative process, or a good wave): @jingjingtsong. Work­ing from a home stu­dio can feel incred­i­bly iso­lat­ing, so I’m on Twit­ter every now and then, join­ing in on the week­ly con­ver­sa­tions in dif­fer­ent pic­ture book groups.

The books that have elicit­ed the most response are the Hawai­ian Leg­ends for Lit­tle Ones series. Peo­ple are grate­ful to have these authen­tic sto­ries about Hawaii.

Maha­lo, Jing Jing, for talk­ing sto­ry with us! We loved learn­ing about you and your cre­ative process. Best wish­es always!

To learn more about Jing Jing, includ­ing her gor­geous print gallery, vis­it her web­site, JingJingTsong.com. While you’re there, vis­it her online book­store, Jing and Mike Co. Pho­to cour­tesy of author.

 

Book Review: Too Many Mangoes, by Tammy Paikai

Too_many_mangoes

Too_many_mangoes

Some pic­ture books are clas­sics. They tell time­less tales that teach us about the world and our place in it.

One such clas­sic also hap­pens to be one of the first Native Hawai­ian-themed books writ­ten in an authen­tic voice. Too Many Man­goes by Tam­my Paikai is a sto­ry based on the author’s child­hood experience.

This gen­tle sto­ry is about two Hawai­ian kids, Kama and Nani, who love to climb the man­go tree at their grand­paʻs house. One day grand­pa asks them to pick some man­goes, but when he real­izes that the kids have picked way too many for their fam­i­ly to eat, he instructs them to give the man­goes away to their neighbors.

Thus the adven­ture begins. We are intro­duced to a delight­ful com­mu­ni­ty of gen­er­ous and kind neigh­bors. The kids go to each house to share the man­goes and, in return, are giv­en won­der­ful treats — baked goods, fruit, jam, even an orchid plant — that the book calls “maha­lo gifts.” The last spread is at the table where grand­pa and the grand­kids are hap­pi­ly feast­ing on their unex­pect­ed bounty.

Too-many-Mangoes-Grandpa
Illus­tra­tion © Don Robin­son from Too Many Man­goes by Tam­my Paikai (Island Her­itage, 2009)

What I love most about this book is the Native Hawai­ian lessons of shar­ing with­out expec­ta­tion of any­thing in return and in being hap­py with what nature gives you. Kids can be picky eaters, and this sto­ry shows then that deli­cious pro­duce doesn’t have to be blem­ish-free: man­goes donʻt have to be per­fect to be, well, per­fect. As the neigh­bors explain, over­ripe man­go can be sprin­kled with sweet-and-salty li hing pow­der or made into pick­les or bread. I was delight­ed to find that my favorite way to eat slight­ly under­ripe man­go — with a thin mari­nade of shoyu, vine­gar and chili pep­per water — was fea­tured in the book.

Illus­tra­tion © Don Robin­son from Too Many Man­goes by Tam­my Paikai (Island Her­itage, 2009)

Too Many Man­goes offers many enrich­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties and has been adapt­ed by teach­ers, librar­i­ans and par­ents in cur­ricu­lum for first graders, includ­ing math, food and back­yard agri­cul­ture, and cul­ture and diver­si­ty. The book has been adapt­ed into class­room plays and read­er the­aters and com­mu­ni­ty read-aloud events.

The illus­tra­tions, by pop­u­lar local Hawaiʻi illus­tra­tor Don Robin­son, are gor­geous, with mut­ed trop­i­cal vibes youʻd expect from a children’s book about Hawaiʻi.

Some book review­ers have made an issue about so-called gram­mar errors. I found just one spread toward the end of the book where the tense shifts from the present to the past then back to the present. More a styl­is­tic hic­cup than a gram­mar mis­take, the shift in tense is minor and does not detract from the story.

Per­haps the best vin­di­ca­tion is that Too Many Man­goes was a fea­tured title by the Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Grad­u­ate School of Edu­ca­tion. Dr. Sarah Dry­den-Peter­son described the Books of Belong­ing pro­gram “where we find big, hard ques­tions about the world pack­aged with love between the cov­ers of a book.”

And that describes Too Many Man­goes perfectly.

Too Many Man­goes, A Sto­ry about Shar­ing
Writ­ten by Tam­my Paikai. Illus­trat­ed by Don Robin­son
Island Her­itage Pub­lish­ing, 2009
ISBN 1–59700-758–7
Sug­gest­ed for ages 2–6

Meet author Tam­my Paikai in our talk-sto­ry inter­view and dis­cov­er her oth­er Hawaii-themed pic­ture books. Too Many Man­goes is avail­able at Native Books Hawaiʻi and at your favorite online booksellers. 

Images from Wel­come to the Islands. Please read our dis­claimer to learn our book review pol­i­cy. Mahalo!

Interview with Native Hawaiian Filmmaker Ciara Leinaʻala Lacy

Ciara-Lacy

Ciara-LacyCia­ra Leinaʻala Lacy is a tal­ent­ed writer-pro­duc­er-direc­tor whose pas­sion is telling sto­ries influ­enced by her Native Hawai­ian heritage.

Her doc­u­men­tary-style con­tent has shown at Sun­dance and Berli­nale and on stream­ing plat­forms includ­ing Net­flix, PBS, ABC, and Al Jazeera. The inau­gur­al Sun­dance Insti­tute Mer­a­ta Mita Fel­low, Cia­raʻs work has been sup­port­ed by Tribeca, The Princess Grace Foun­da­tion, the MacArthur Foun­da­tion, and Pacif­ic Islanders in Communication.

Her award-win­ning fil­mog­ra­phy includes Is That Black Enough for You? (2022), This is the Way We Rise (2021), Out of State (2018), We Are Still Here (2018), and 11/8/16 (2017), and as well as oth­er com­mer­cial projects.

And as if all of that was­n’t impres­sive enough, Cia­ra is hum­ble and gra­cious. She recent­ly carved out some time out of her busy sched­ule to talk sto­ry with us.

Click the stills below to see trail­ers of the films.

scene from This is the Way We Rise
scene from This is the Way We Rise

Alo­ha e Cia­ra! For those who haven’t met you, could you please tell us a lit­tle about yourself?

I’m Hawai­ian, Chi­nese, Cau­casian born and raised in Cen­tral Oahu. I love to make things  and col­lab­o­rate with teams, and have spent the major­i­ty of my career craft­ing non-fic­tion work, whether for TV or Film, about the Kana­ka Maoli experience.

Where did you grow up? What high school did you grad from? 

I grew up in Mililani, and attend­ed Kame­hame­ha High School, Kapālama.

Me, too! Go, War­riors! Who is your biggest supporter?

This was a tough one! I’ve been real­ly for­tu­nate to have a TON of sup­port. My par­ents have always been huge sup­port­ers of any­thing I want­ed to do, no mat­ter how crazy, and my hus­band has been as well. I have to give thanks to all my friends who endure watch­ing cuts of my work or read­ing drafts because Iʻm a huge believ­er in the pow­er of feed­back to help make work better.

scene from Out of State
scene from Out of State

Why did you become a film­mak­er? Did you always know you could cre­ate art?

I became a film­mak­er, because I am crazy? I did­n’t always know I could make art, but I have always loved the idea of mak­ing things. I absolute­ly love project based work, and I do love a lit­tle adven­ture in life…so film­mak­ing has giv­en me both!  Itʻs tak­en me a long time to feel com­fort­able call­ing myself an artist because Iʻm untrained and kind of learn by doing, but I think Iʻm get­ting there!

What do you enjoy most about film­mak­ing? What are some of your great­est challenges?

I love the process, even if it can keep me up at night or make me want to tear my hair out at times! And I love to cre­ate col­lab­o­ra­tive spaces, work­ing with oth­ers who are like mind­ed and ded­i­cat­ed to craft­ing the strongest pos­si­ble of work.

I tend to be more of an emo­tion­al, less lin­ear thinker, so I wor­ry that my work is mak­ing sense. I often poke hard at it for this rea­son, which sounds very minor but is a real­ly big deal for me. How can peo­ple emo­tion­al­ly con­nect with or learn from your work, if they donʻt under­stand the basics of whatʻs going on?

Scene from 11-8-16
scene from 11–8‑16

And you nev­er know what peo­ple take away from a film. Some­times you think an idea will mean one thing, and peo­ple take away anoth­er. So Iʻm con­stant­ly dig­ging into feed­back to refine the mes­sag­ing and clar­i­ty of what I am making.

What are your hopes and dreams for the year and beyond in terms of your artis­tic career and what you would like to see pub­lished in the future?

My hopes for the next year are very tran­si­tion­al and, hope­ful­ly, very trans­for­ma­tive! Iʻm hop­ing to expand what I do beyond doc­u­men­tary work to include screen­writ­ing and direct­ing nar­ra­tive con­tent. So Iʻm work­ing a screen­play, my first ani­mat­ed short for kids, and two nar­ra­tive shorts. Iʻm hop­ing to do even more, not to sound too greedy, but we shall see what I can accomplish!

scene from We Are Still Here
scene from We Are Still Here

That sounds excit­ing! Do you have any expe­ri­ences as a woman of col­or film­mak­er that you might share with our read­ers? What would you like to see change in the indus­try regard­ing the accep­tance of BIPOC creators?

I am con­stant­ly sur­prised by mis­con­cep­tions and pre­con­ceived notions peo­ple have about Kana­ka Maoli, our sto­ries, and our world­view. This impacts how the work is received, whether peo­ple are in a space to embrace the sto­ry­telling or not.

What advice would you give an aspir­ing filmmaker?

Play! Give your­self time to learn, grow, and real­ly find what you like. Devel­op­ing a sense of per­son­al taste is real­ly impor­tant. You donʻt have to cre­ate work for every­one. Just know what you like and focus on that. Your audi­ence will come!

I love that advice. Where do you get your inspirations?

Every­where! Friends and fam­i­ly, the news, art, radio, going for walks. Inspi­ra­tion can find you any place you’re ready to see it.

Can you share a bit about what you’re work­ing on next?

I’m work­ing on a few things, but per­haps most fun is my first nar­ra­tive piece, a short ani­mat­ed sto­ry for kids. It’s been a real­ly big chal­lenge – I’m learn­ing a ton – and am excit­ed to see what shakes out from it all!

And now a few niele (noisy) ques­tions, if you’d like to answer. Who is your hero?

My hero is Twin­kle Borge of Wai‘anae. She is a kana­ka dri­ven to sup­port com­mu­ni­ty needs, espe­cial­ly for kei­ki and has been able to make tan­gi­ble change for her peo­ple. This is a woman that can move moun­tains, and she inspires me.

Oh, yes, she’s amaz­ing. What is your proud­est accomplishment?

Meet­ing my husband.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Nev­er be afraid to try. You can be creative!

If you could choose to do any­thing for a day, what would that be?

Float in space! How cool would that be?

Very cool. This was so fun, Cia­ra! Maha­lo nui loa for shar­ing your man­a’o with us. We can’t wait to see more from you!

To learn more about Cia­ra Lacy and her films, vis­it her at CiaraLacy.com, on Insta­gram @ciaraleilacy, and on Twit­ter @ciaraleilacy. Stills and photo cour­tesy of Cia­ra Lacy.

 

Book Review: Hiʻiaka and Panaʻewa, a Graphic Novel by Gabrielle Ahuliʻi

Hiʻiaka-and-Panaewa

Hiʻiaka-and-Panaewa

When I was a kid, I had a set of books called Great Illus­trat­ed Clas­sics. They were fat vol­umes full of sto­ries embell­ished with black and white draw­ings. The scari­est tales were from Greek and Roman mythol­o­gy where the hero bat­tled bad guys and won (most of the time.) 

Even in school, the myths we read were lim­it­ed to Greek and Roman gods with names like Zeus, Athena, Posei­don and Mars.

But where were the col­or­ful pic­ture books about Pele, Maui, Kaʻahu­pa­hau, Kama­puaʻa, the mene­hune? There weren’t any, not in the kidlit sec­tion of the library or in any of the illus­trat­ed clas­sics that lined my child­hood bookshelf.

The mes­sage native kids like me got loud and clear was that those Greeks and Romans were the clas­sic heroes, the only heroes worth learn­ing about.

Thank­ful­ly, times are chang­ing. More Native Hawai­ian authors and artists are revis­it­ing and retelling our tra­di­tion­al sto­ries for today’s young audiences.

The lat­est is a graph­ic nov­el, Hiʻi­a­ka and Panaʻe­wa, by Native Hawai­ian author Gabrielle Ahuliʻi. Intend­ed for the pic­ture book crowd, ages 4 – 8, and their grown-ups, this book is the per­fect intro­duc­tion to Hawai­ian myths for the youngest readers.

The sto­ry, as described in the sum­ma­ry, is: 

Hiʻi­a­ka wants to make the forests of Hawaiʻi safe for peo­ple. But sheʻll have to bat­tle an evil lizard named Panaʻe­wa and his army to do it. With a lit­tle help from her sis­ter, her friend, and some spe­cial pow­ers, sheʻs ready for a great battle.”

This is a sto­ry of friend­ship and sis­ter­hood. Faced with the task of keep­ing the for­est safe for the peo­ple, Hiʻi­a­ka, accom­pa­nied by her friend Wahineʻō­maʻo, must decide how to chal­lenge the fear­some guardian mo’o, Panaʻewa.

In one of my favorite scenes, Hiʻi­a­ka seeks strength by look­ing up at the stars and remem­ber­ing the courage it took for her ances­tors to brave the vast Pacif­ic Ocean to set­tle in Hawaiʻi. This sim­ple pan­el con­veys such emo­tion in a deeply Hawai­ian way.

The small cast of char­ac­ters are total­ly like­able. They expe­ri­ence some fears and doubts, but ulti­mate­ly they find strength from with­in and from each oth­er. The bat­tle with Panaʻe­wa is scary, but the scene is not too intense for young readers.

As expect­ed in a children’s sto­ry, the heroes pre­vail, and the end is hope­ful. The last pan­el neat­ly ties up the sto­ry by reflect­ing the very first pan­el of the island below and the man­uokū fly­ing above.

I appre­ci­ate that the sto­ry is pre­sent­ed as a short (32 page) graph­ic nov­el. The for­mat with its thought­ful word choice and poet­ic devices is per­fect for its intend­ed audi­ence of begin­ning read­ers but also as a read aloud.

The illus­tra­tions are inten­tion­al­ly sparse. Kids can eas­i­ly get over­whelmed in tra­di­tion­al com­ic book style, but in this book, fran­tic, over­drawn pan­els are avoid­ed. Instead, the col­or­ful, pic­ture book-like illus­tra­tions con­vey both sto­ry and emo­tion appro­pri­ate for the intend­ed age group.

More than any­thing, I love the author’s authen­tic voice. Every­thing, from imagery – espe­cial­ly Pele’s skirt and lei, the voy­ag­ing canoe, the man­uokū seabird, the moʻo – to the select­ed words in ʻōle­lo Hawaiʻi feels pono. For tra­di­tion­al­ists in my com­mu­ni­ty, this sto­ry of Pele and Hiʻi­a­ka is respectful.

The bookʻs back mat­ter con­sists of help­ful resources, includ­ing writ­ing prompts, dis­cus­sion ques­tions, and a short glossary.

In her author’s note, Ahuliʻi writes, “I hope our ances­tors look on my telling with pride.”

I am sure they are.

Hiʻi­a­ka and Panae­wa, A Hawai­ian Graph­ic Leg­end
Writ­ten by Gabrielle Ahuliʻi. Illus­trat­ed by Sarah Demon­teverde
Pub­lished by Pic­ture Win­dow Books, 2023
ISBN: 9781484672907
Sug­gest­ed for ages 4 – 8

Learn about the author in our talk sto­ry inter­view with Gabrielle Ahuliʻi. To look up the def­i­n­i­tions of the Hawai­ian terms used in this post, please vis­it Nā Puke Wehewe­he.

Dis­claimer.

Interview with Native Hawaiian Author Gabrielle Ahuliʻi

Gabby-Ahulii

Gabby-AhuliiLike most Native Hawai­ians, author Gabrielle Ahuliʻi grew up hear­ing the beloved leg­ends passed down from gen­er­a­tion to generation. 

Best known for her pop­u­lar series, Hawai­ian Leg­ends for Lit­tle Ones, and now for her first graph­ic nov­el, Hi’i­a­ka and Panae­wa, Gabrielle beau­ti­ful­ly retells these clas­sic sto­ries for today’s young read­ers and their grown-ups. 

Why is it so impor­tant for chil­dren to know the myths and leg­ends of their ances­tors? Gabrielle explains in an inter­view at Bright­ly:

Expo­sure to sto­ries and leg­ends of cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance in ear­ly child­hood can give chil­dren a deep sense of respect for the place they live and an oppor­tu­ni­ty to engage with the cul­ture around them. Access to and engage­ment with Native Hawai­ian sto­ries empow­ers chil­dren of Native Hawai­ian descent by arm­ing them with knowl­edge to help nav­i­gate their world as Indige­nous peo­ple…If a child under­stands the world around them from a cul­tur­al per­spec­tive, they are not only able to engage more deeply with their cul­ture, but to cre­ate more mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion across cul­tures as well.

We total­ly agree.

Alo­ha e Gabrielle. For those who haven’t met you, could you please tell us a lit­tle about yourself?

My name is Gabrielle Ahuliʻi Fer­reira Holt, and I was born and raised on Oʻahu. I live in the ahupuaʻa of Maki­ki, which is also the ahupuaʻa of the school I work at. I am the school librar­i­an at Hana­hauʻoli School, a 105 year old pro­gres­sive ele­men­tary school.

Where did you grow up? What high school did you grad from?

I grew up in Hon­olu­lu, and I was for­tu­nate to attend both Hana­hauʻoli School and Puna­hou School. Hana­hauʻoli gave me the gift of crit­i­cal think­ing, a love of learn­ing, and cre­ative prob­lem solv­ing, while Puna­hou school widened my hori­zons and gave me the gift of learn­ing ʻōle­lo Hawaiʻi for four years.

Go Buff n’ Blue! Who is your biggest supporter?

I live an incred­i­bly priv­i­leged life in that I have no lack of sup­port­ers. I have count­less peo­ple in my life who step up, both phys­i­cal­ly and men­tal­ly, and are con­stant­ly and con­sis­tent­ly on my team. I want to rec­og­nize my fam­i­ly, my part­ner, my men­tor, my edi­tor at Beach­house, my friends and col­leagues at Hana­hauʻoli, and the lāhui for always giv­ing me every­thing I need.

Why did you become a writer? What inspired you to write for children?

I didn’t ever see myself as a writer; as a kid, I was an incred­i­bly lazy writer. I didn’t Maui-slows-the-suncon­nect to writ­ing in the way that I deeply con­nect­ed to read­ing. I became friends with some­one who pub­lish­es books for chil­dren in Hawaiʻi while I was in the Library Sci­ences pro­gram at UH. At the time, I was focused on Hawai­ian / Pacif­ic Librar­i­an­ship, and when she heard about my pas­sion, she approached me with a writ­ing project. She and I worked so well togeth­er that we pub­lished six adap­ta­tions of moʻole­lo togeth­er. She allowed me to see myself as a writer.

What do you enjoy most about writ­ing for kids? What are some of your great­est chal­lenges in writ­ing for children?

Since I am a school librar­i­an, I get to work­shop ideas and rough drafts with my stu­dents. Their feed­back is invalu­able. I hear their voic­es in my head when I am craft­ing a sto­ry. I love that I get to essen­tial­ly col­lab­o­rate with my stu­dents. Some of them are such pow­er­ful, descrip­tive writ­ers that tru­ly inspire me.

After their Hawaiʻi Island trip, one child wrote about the “braid­ed lava.” Anoth­er child wrote the phrase “Pele runs her hand along cre­ation,” and I was just blown away. Just being around their sin­cere, cre­ative ener­gy makes me a bet­ter per­son and a bet­ter writer.

My biggest chal­lenge is keep­ing sto­ries sim­ple. Too often, peo­ple feel that chil­dren need bells and whis­tles in a sto­ry to keep them engaged. Noth­ing is fur­ther from the truth! The most endur­ing, mean­ing­ful nar­ra­tives for chil­dren are often the most sim­ple but pro­found. If you have some­thing to say, say it truth­ful­ly, mean­ing­ful­ly, and in the lan­guage of the world you have built.

Hiʻiaka-and-PanaewaCon­grat­u­la­tions on your new graph­ic nov­el, Hiʻi­a­ka and Panae­wa! Can you share a bit about the book? With­out giv­ing too much away, what is it about?

This book is a re-telling of Hiʻi­a­ka and her first major encounter with one of the moʻo of Hawaiʻi – Panaʻe­wa. My re-telling sim­pli­fies her jour­ney a lot. Itʻs for younger read­ers and for those who may not have a lot of con­text for who Hiʻi­a­ka is, so she sets of on this adven­ture with a slight­ly dif­fer­ent goal than what is dis­cussed in the orig­i­nal ʻoli.

What inspired you to choose that top­ic for your first graph­ic novel?

When I was approached to write this, I sug­gest­ed three Hawai­ian moʻole­lo (hop­ing that this one was the one the pub­lish­ers would con­nect to). I want­ed to write a moʻole­lo with a female pro­tag­o­nist, and I want­ed to bring more of Hiʻi­akaʻs sto­ry to younger readers.

What was your favorite part of writ­ing your graph­ic nov­el? What was most challenging?

I love read­ing and doing research, so I real­ly like that part of the process. I want to make sure that my adap­ta­tions are faith­ful, while also being able to give them my own voice and per­spec­tive. I was­nʻt used to cre­at­ing books in a graph­ic nov­el for­mat, so the biggest chal­lenge was think­ing about what I want­ed each pan­el to look like – not that I nec­es­sar­i­ly told the illus­tra­tor exact­ly what to draw, but I need­ed to think about what my words need­ed to say and where the images could help sup­port the rest of the story.

What was the jour­ney to get­ting that book pub­lished like?

Cap­stone approached me to write an entry in their ongo­ing Dis­cov­er Graph­ics series in Decem­ber of 2021 and I spent 2022 work­ing on the man­u­script. It was pub­lished in Decem­ber of 2022. They found me because of my first series of Hawai­ian Leg­end adap­ta­tions, which has indeed opened many doors for me.

What char­ac­ter­is­tics do you love best about the protagonist(s)?

I love Hiʻi­a­ka as a char­ac­ter because although she is pow­er­ful, she is also fal­li­ble and real­is­tic. I love how coura­geous she is, but also how cocky she can be. I did­nʻt get to include this in my re-telling, but there is a point in her sto­ry when she is par­tic­i­pat­ing in a surf con­test, and she says, “Aia a ʻane e uhi ke kai i ke kua o ke kuahi­wi o kea, a laila, kū koʻu nalu – When the sea ris­es and cov­ers Mau­na Kea, then that is my wave.” So brave, and so bold! I just love her so much and want more of her epic avail­able for chil­dren to enjoy.

Pele-Finds-A-HoneYou are also the author of a suc­cess­ful series of board books. What inspired you to write about folk tales for your first books?

I think there is a true need for moʻole­lo to be acces­si­ble for young read­ers – we have a few very, very good adap­ta­tions, but I want chil­dren to have as many antholo­gies and books about Hawai­ian gods and god­dess­es as there are about the Greek ones. I want more Native Hawai­ian voic­es rep­re­sent­ed as the tellers of these moʻole­lo, and I want a wide vari­ety of moʻole­lo told.

What are your hopes and dreams for the year and beyond in terms of your writ­ing career and what you would like to see pub­lished in the future?

I would love to con­tin­ue to per­pet­u­ate the cul­ture of lit­er­a­cy that Kana­ka have built. It is a priv­i­lege to get to be some­one who can write these moʻole­lo down for pos­ter­i­ty, so I hope and dream that I con­tin­ue to do it and do it in a way where I make my com­mu­ni­ty and lāhui proud to read them.

My next goal or wish is to cre­ate an anthol­o­gy of Hawai­ian moʻole­lo for mid­dle grades — 3rd to 6th. There is a real need there. The antholo­gies that do exist are good resources for adults. I want old­er ele­men­tary age chil­dren to be excit­ed about the Hawai­ian pan­theon of Gods and God­dess­es in the same way many are obsessed with Greek or Norse mythology.

There are not a lot of sto­ries for kids by Native Hawai­ian, Pacif­ic Islander or BIPOC writ­ers. Why do you think that is? What do you think we can do the change that?

I do feel we are see­ing a par­a­digm shift in pub­lish­ing cul­ture. Many are being more crit­i­cal of the books that take up space in the canon of chil­drenʻs lit­er­a­ture and giv­ing it a sec­ond glance. I feel that it is more diverse than when I was devel­op­ing my read­ing skills, certainly.

Hiʻiaka-Battles-The-WindHow­ev­er, it real­ly does boil down to: You canʻt be what you canʻt see. The only books that I read as a child with a Hawai­ian char­ac­ter in it were either so wild­ly mis­rep­re­sent­ed as to verge on offen­sive, or writ­ten by a non-Hawai­ian per­son. I think that in order to fix this, we have to empow­er our­selves to take charge, shed our imposter syn­dromes and say, “I can do this, I can tell this sto­ry.” In that way, we can invest in a future where chil­dren have seen them­selves rep­re­sent­ed in their lit­er­a­ture and are encour­aged to not only seek out more, but add on to what has been created.

Which of your books did you have the most fun writ­ing? Which were the most challenging?

All were such inter­est­ing chal­lenges that it’s hard to rank them. I loved doing the research piece for all the board books — even though the adap­ta­tions are quite short, I want­ed to do the tra­di­tion of moʻole­lo ser­vice and tried to find and read as many ver­sions as I could. I loved writ­ing all of them!

What beliefs are your books challenging?

Maui-Hooks_the_islandsI want to chal­lenge the belief that Hawaiʻi is just this sta­t­ic place that vis­i­tors sim­ply “expe­ri­ence”. I want peo­ple to under­stand that every piece of Hawaiʻi is a moʻole­lo in itself; that every per­son (vis­i­tor, set­tler or ʻōi­wi) here has a respon­si­bil­i­ty to take care of Hawaiʻi and acknowl­edge those moʻolelo.

Can you share a bit about your next book?

I’ve just fin­ished an ʻŌle­lo Hawaiʻi trans­la­tions of my first six board books with Beach­house. David Del Roc­co helped me immense­ly with the trans­la­tion process (I need­ed some lan­guage sup­port — some of my gram­mar was a lit­tle rusty!) I am beyond excit­ed for those re-pub­li­ca­tions to come out. I would love to read them aloud ma ka ʻōle­lo Hawaiʻi some­day soon to a group of children!

What advice would you give an aspir­ing writer?

NaupakaWrite what you know and in your own voice, writ­ing is not a solo process, the project is nev­er tru­ly fin­ished, treat your char­ac­ters with empa­thy and as if they are sit­ting in the room with you.

What kinds of books do you enjoy read­ing? Any favorites?

I love read­ing and my super­pow­er is that I am an extreme­ly fast read­er, so I am able to read a lot in a short amount of time. I love authors like Ali Smith who play with the con­ven­tions of what a nov­el is and have such a spe­cif­ic voice. I love all gen­res – although  I donʻt nec­es­sar­i­ly grav­i­tate towards romance or thrillers (except a book called Razor­blade Tears that I thought was stupendous).

Hereʻs a list of authors and/or books that I love:

  • Ali Smith (Sea­son­al Quar­tet, The Acci­den­tal, How to be Both)
  • Rachel Cusk (Out­line trilogy)
  • Her­nan Diaz (Trust)
  • Elif Batu­man (The Idiot)
  • Otes­sa Mosh­fegh (My Year of Rest & Relax­ation, Lapvona)
  • Berna­dine Evaris­to (Girl, Woman, Oth­er)
  • Emma Cline (The Girls, Dad­dy, The Guest)
  • Jes­myn Ward (Sal­vage the Bones, Sing, Unburied, Sing)
  • Made­line Miller (Song of Achilles, Circe)
  • Robert Jones Jr. (The Prophets)
  • Miri­am Toews (A Com­pli­cat­ed Kind­ness, Women Talk­ing)
  • Tom­my Orange (There, There)
  • Yoko Ogawa (The Mem­o­ry Police)

More authors: Mohsin Hamed, Helen Oye­mi, Andrea Levy, Bryan Wash­ing­ton, Michael Ondaat­je, Lisa tad­deo, Juhea Kim, Chanelle Benz, Lau­ren Groff, Zadie Smith, Luis Alber­to Urrea, Bran­don Hobson)

I have so many!

Can you share a bit of your cur­rent work?

I just went to Hawaiʻi Island with some stu­dents and was isnpired by Waiānu­enue / Rain­bow Falls and the moʻole­lo of Kuna the moʻo. I start­ed draft­ing a sto­ry to tell my stu­dents the sec­ond night we were there, so this is a work in progress:

The moʻo took silent steps toward her. The moʻo was cov­ered in a sick­ly translu­cent set of scales, as if the rays of the sun could not reach him. His eyes were a deep mot­tled grey. Hina thought of the lava fields south of Hilo, the smooth lava that in some light looked like bod­ies strewn across a plain. His eyes gave her that same unset­tled but awe-struck feeling.

The moʻoʻs tongue slicked out to wet one of those grey eyes. “Hina of Hilo — you meet my eyes as if we are equals. But you do have man­ners, so I will not strike you down here. I have long tired of you and your kind com­ing to this island, assum­ing that you can shape the earth around you with no consequence.”

Hina opened her mouth to argue but remained silent. Some­times silence was better.

The moʻo con­tin­ued. “Your son, the famous Māui, has a hook. He will bring me this hook that he has used to reshape the heav­ens itself, or you will die here, in this pool. This pool is cold and the cur­rent is strong, and the sea of this coast is vio­lent and unforgiving.”

Hina thought. Why should Māui bring this mon­ster his hook?

The moʻo smiled sly­ly. “Why should your son bring me this hook, you may be think­ing. Sim­ply: he does not deserve this extra­or­di­nary tool. This hook belongs to the old Gods, those that were born from the deep roil­ing depths and grew along­side the ferns and fish and birds.”

“The gods them­selves gave that hook to my son, and he has only used it to serve oth­ers. As I have taught him.” Hina stood up straighter.

“Who does he serve when he cracks the sea floor to pull islands to the sur­face? Who does he serve when he bends even the sun to his self­ish will?” The moʻo spoke calm­ly, but Hina could sense the fury puls­ing through the mon­sterʻs veins. His tail tapped slow­ly on the wet cave floor.

“He serves his fam­i­ly and his peo­ple. As is cor­rect,” Hina respond­ed sim­ply. “The respon­si­bil­i­ty of gods and their fam­i­ly is to help and pro­tect the humans who live with us.”

The kids must’ve loved this! Do you have a web­site? Are you on social media? Do your read­ers con­tact you? What do they say?

My web­site is gabrielleahulii.com. I donʻt real­ly have social media in a pro­fes­sion­al “writer” capac­i­ty. Most peo­ple con­tact me through my web­site. I get mes­sages about how they dis­cov­ered my books or I get images of chil­dren read­ing them. I love that a lot. I also get to meet peo­ple when I do read­ings, which is always so fantastic!

It was won­der­ful meet­ing you, Gabrielle. Maha­lo nui for shar­ing your man­aʻo, and best wish­es always for your con­tin­ued success!

To read more about Gabrielle, includ­ing her work on lit­er­a­cy in Hawaiʻi, vis­it her web­site, GabriellaAhulii.com. Pho­to cour­tesy of author.

 

Interview with Native Hawaiian Artist Solomon Enos

Solomon-Enos

Native Hawai­ian artist Solomon Enos is a mod­ern-day Renais­sance man: a sought-after artist, book Solomon-Enosillus­tra­tor, mural­ist, sculp­tor, and game design­er. His beau­ti­ful pieces have been exhib­it­ed at mul­ti­ple pub­lic venues, includ­ing the Hon­olu­lu Muse­um of Art, the Hawai’i State Art Muse­um, and the pres­ti­gious Smith­son­ian Muse­um Asian Pacif­ic Amer­i­can Cen­ter. Google, Pixar, and Dis­ney’s Aulani Resort are among his famous clients. 

His web­site describes the artist this way:

A self-described “Pos­si­bilist” Solomon’s art express­es an informed aspi­ra­tional vision of the world at its best via con­tem­po­rary and tra­di­tion­al art that leans towards Sci-Fi and Fan­ta­sy. His work touch­es on themes like col­lec­tive-con­scious­ness, ances­try and iden­ti­ty, our rela­tion­ship with our plan­et, and all through the lens of his expe­ri­ence as a per­son indige­nous to Hawaiʻi.

Yet for all his many accom­plish­ments and con­tri­bu­tions to the com­mu­ni­ty, he is a hum­ble man of few words. We are hon­ored to fea­ture the artist, Solomon Enos.

Alo­ha e Solomon. For those who haven’t met you yet, can you please tell us a lit­tle about yourself?

FamilyI am a native Hawai­ian artist with an inter­est in visu­al­ly trans­lat­ing aspects of Hawai­ian cul­ture into new media and genres. 

Where did you grow up? What high school did you grad from?

I grew up in Māka­ha [island of Oʻahu] and went to Waiʻanae High School.

Go Searid­ers! Who are your biggest supporters?

My fam­i­ly and asso­ciates who share a sense of kuleana to our cul­tur­al values.

Why did you come an illustrator/artist? Did you always  know you could cre­ate art? 

From a very young age, as my fam­i­ly gave me all the encour­age­ment I need­ed. 

What do you enjoy most about cre­at­ing art? What are some of your great­est chal­lenges? 

The very mys­tery of cre­ation, and find­ing enough time to work in bal­ance with my oth­er responsibilities.

Liliʻu-Kalākaua-MuralWhere do you get your inspirations?

From a mul­ti­tude of var­ied sources and quite a bit of inter­nal explorations.

Illus­tra­tors and artists, like writ­ers, do a lot of research when theyʻre cre­at­ing. Whatʻs your research process like? 

This is prob­a­bly the most chal­leng­ing ques­tion, as I am con­stant­ly work­ing and cre­at­ing, so I do not sep­a­rate my process from my dai­ly life. To sum it up, I have an unstop­pable belief that I can achieve any vision I set out to cre­ate, pro­vid­ing I man­age my time, as I have mul­ti­ple visions in progress.

What beliefs are your work challenging?

The nature of war as inevitable, and the wor­ship of wealth with­out responsibility.

Gatherer-black-and-whiteThere are not a lot of Native Hawai­ian, Pacif­ic Islander or peo­ple of col­or illus­tra­tors.  Why do you think that is? What do you think we can do to change that? 

I am very much com­mit­ted to inspir­ing oth­er natives, by exam­ple of my work eth­ic, and my aspi­ra­tion to gain con­sen­sus as I move to excellence.

What are your hopes and dreams for the year and beyond in terms of your artis­tic career?

I am blessed to be work­ing on a range of major com­mis­sions simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, and I hope to get back to my own projects with all this gained experience.

Art-AttackCan we see a bit of your cur­rent work?

Sure, @solomonenos on Insta­gram is the most cur­rent and eas­i­est way to access my work.

What advice would you give an aspir­ing artist? 

Make sacred work spaces, where you have all your tools and good light­ing. Know that what­ev­er you are cur­rent­ly work­ing on, it is the most impor­tant thing you can be doing with the time you have to give. Be fear­less and take risks with paper and can­vas, and no time used cre­at­ing is ever wasted.

What’s your online pres­ence like? Do your fol­low­ers con­tact you? What do they say? 

Solomonenos.com, and I am most active­ly on Insta­gram @solomonenos. I absolute­ly encour­age engage­ment and con­ver­sa­tions, and I have been blessed with many peo­ple express­ing their appre­ci­a­tion and who have found inspi­ra­tion in my work. Those are tru­ly the price­less ways that I thrive and can give back. 

Maha­lo, Solomon, for shar­ing your man­a’o with us today, and best wish­es always for your con­tin­ued success!

To learn more about Solomon Enos, includ­ing his online port­fo­lio of murals and exhi­bi­tions, vis­it his web­site, SolomonEnos.com. Pho­to and images cour­tesy of Solomon Enos

 

Book Review: Lei and the Fire Goddess, by Malia Maunakea

Lei-and-the-Fire-Goddess

Lei-and-the-Fire-Goddess

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
2023
ISBN 9780593522035
Sug­gest­ed for ages 8 – 12

Maha­lo to Sier­ra Pregosin at Pen­guin Ran­dom House for access to the galley! 

Learn about author Malia Mau­nakea in our talk-sto­ry inter­view. To look up the def­i­n­i­tions of the Hawai­ian terms used in this post, please vis­it Wehewehe.org

 

Interview with Native Hawaiian Author Malia Maunakea

Malia-Maunakea-Kahiki-Photography

Malia-Maunakea-Kahiki-PhotographyMalia Maunkea is Native Hawai­ian author of mid­dle grade and non-fic­tion. Her new nov­el, LEI AND THE FIRE GODDESS, a rol­lick­ing sto­ry about an adven­tur­ous Native Hawai­ian twelve-year-old, is a rar­i­ty in chil­drenʻs lit­er­a­ture: a sto­ry for mid­dle grade kids writ­ten by an ʻōi­wi author that fea­tures an ʻōi­wi char­ac­ter. We are proud to fea­ture Malia in todayʻs talk-story.

Hoʻo­maikaʻiʻana on your new nov­el! For those who haven’t met you yet, please tell us a lit­tle about yourself.

Sure! My name’s Malia, named for the Olo­mana song O Malia since my par­ents’ first date was to an Olo­mana con­cert. My mom is from upstate New York and is pure Pol­ish. My dad is from Māʻili (West Side) on Oʻahu. I’ve been mar­ried to my awe­some part­ner for near­ly two decades, and we have two kids who are teens at the time of this inter­view. I love hik­ing and back­pack­ing and trav­el­ing around the con­ti­nent in our tiny campervan.

Where did you grow up? What high school did you grad from?

I grew up on Hawaiʻi Island ’til 7th grade and Oʻahu thru high school. I got accept­ed into Kame­hame­ha Schools in 7th grade. I was a board­er for one year, then my fam­i­ly moved over to Oʻahu and, much to my dis­may, I had to move back in with them. I grad­u­at­ed from Kame­hame­ha Schools in 1999. My dad is class of ʻ72. My great-grand­pa is class of ʻ17.

I mua! Go War­riors! Can you share a bit of your upcom­ing debut nov­el, LEI AND THE FIRE GODDESS? With­out giv­ing too much away, what is it about? 

Lei-and-the-Fire-GoddessLEI is about a girl who is raised in Col­orado but goes to stay with her tūtū in Vol­cano, Hawaiʻi every sum­mer for three weeks. She’s part Hawai­ian but doesn’t feel like she’s Hawai­ian enough to fit in there, and she also strug­gles fit­ting in back home in Col­orado where no one believes the things her grand­ma tells her.

This sum­mer she decides she doesn’t believe them either, and all she wants to do is go do touristy things so she can have fun sto­ries to tell her friends when she gets home. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Lei ends up insult­ing Pele, the fire god­dess, who sends her giant hawk to kid­nap her best friend. When Lei goes to res­cue him, she real­izes just how real Tūtū’s moʻole­lo are as she teams up with demigods and talk­ing bats to bat­tle myth­i­cal crea­tures and evade the traps Pele hurls her way. For if Lei hopes to get her friend back, she has to dig deep into her Hawai­ian roots and embrace all of who she is.

That’s an excit­ing idea! What inspired you to choose that top­ic for your debut novel? 

My son was big into Greek mythol­o­gy for a while, and I tried explain­ing to him that we Hawai­ians have our own amaz­ing gods and leg­ends, but he sor­ta brushed me off. I decid­ed the only way I could get him to lis­ten was maybe if I put it in a book that could be on a shelf that his class­mates might pick up and read, like a Per­cy Jack­son type sto­ry. So I came up with this sto­ry to try share a lot of the myths and moʻole­lo I learned grow­ing up in Hawaii with a new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers who may or may not be famil­iar with our stories.

What was your favorite part of writ­ing your nov­el? What was most challenging? 

My favorite part was going back through my mem­o­ries and pic­tures from liv­ing in Vol­cano and vis­it­ing Hawaiʻi Vol­ca­noes Nation­al Park and remem­ber­ing all the icon­ic art and songs that I was able to thread through­out the sto­ry. The most chal­leng­ing was bring­ing it up to speed. Things have changed since I moved from the island, and I want­ed to make sure I was still on point with var­i­ous land­marks and understandings.

What char­ac­ter­is­tics do you love best about your pro­tag­o­nist, Anna Leilani Kamaʻe­hu? Is she mod­eled after some­one specific? 

I love that she’s sort of a jump-right-in-and-fig­ure-it-out-as-we-go kind of a per­son. I pulled a lot of my own strug­gles of not feel­ing Hawai­ian enough and dif­fi­cul­ties mak­ing and keep­ing friends as mate­r­i­al for Anna.

What was the jour­ney to get­ting your nov­el pub­lished like? How long did it take to write your book?

I draft­ed this book from April to August of 2020 then spent two years in revi­sions. My jour­ney was super fast com­pared to some folks, and not as fast as others.

In the fall of 2020 I applied for a num­ber of men­tor­ships and end­ed up being select­ed for both We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) and my region­al Soci­ety of Children’s Book Writ­ers and Illus­tra­tors (SCBWI) pro­grams. I worked inten­sive­ly with Alan Gratz and Andrea Wang to rewrite, revise, and improve my sto­ry from Jan­u­ary to May of 2021, then sub­mit­ted it to #APIP­it (a pitch event on Twit­ter) in May of 2021. I received inter­est from a num­ber of agents, so I sent out my queries and inter­viewed dif­fer­ent agents, select­ed an agent, did more revi­sions, sent the book out on sub­mis­sion to pub­lish­ers in June, end­ed up hav­ing mul­ti­ple pub­lish­ing hous­es inter­est­ed and went to auc­tion in August.

We sold in Sep­tem­ber 2021 in a two book deal and start­ed work­ing with my fab­u­lous edi­tor Eliz­a­beth Lee at Pen­guin Work­shop (an imprint of Pen­guin Ran­dom House). So since then it has been many more rounds of revi­sions, and now work­ing on book two!

Why did you become author? Have you always want­ed to be an author? 

I loved writ­ing when I was young but was advised by teach­ers that it wasn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly my strong suit and that I was bet­ter at the maths and sci­ences. I also loved read­ing but abhorred book reports and most of the required read­ing from my class­es. It wasn’t until I was an adult with a cou­ple of careers under my belt when I popped my head up from the grind and won­dered if it was pos­si­ble for me to try writ­ing again.

We are so glad you did. What do you enjoy most about writ­ing, espe­cial­ly for kids? What are some of your great­est challenges? 

I love writ­ing excit­ing, fast-paced action scenes—showing kids how clever and strong and brave they can be. My great­est chal­lenge is to get the char­ac­ters to have an arc, to have them change over the course of the sto­ry. A men­tor told me once that peo­ple don’t fall in love with plot; they fall in love with char­ac­ters. The char­ac­ter needs to be three dimen­sion­al and flawed, so read­ers can root for them and under­stand why they’re going through what they’re going through. That is chal­leng­ing for me as I usu­al­ly come up with fun cir­cum­stances that I want to have hap­pen to my char­ac­ter, but they usu­al­ly don’t tie in to a theme or deep­er mean­ing (which prob­a­bly ties into why I strug­gled with Lan­guage Arts and book reports in school.)

You also wrote anoth­er book, BACKPACKING WITH CHILDREN book, which is on a very dif­fer­ent top­ic. What made you decide to write this book?

Backpacking-with-ChildrenI actu­al­ly start­ed that one before LEI AND THE FIRE GODDESS. A friend of mine pub­lished a book for begin­ner back­pack­ers, and I thought that if he could do it, I could do it. They say to “write what you know,” so I wrote about my expe­ri­ences back­pack­ing with our kids over the past ten years and 600+ miles. While that book was on sub­mis­sion, I had a lot of time to wait, and so I decid­ed to write the next thing, and the next thing, and then anoth­er thing. And that last thing end­ed up becom­ing LEI!

What are your hopes and dreams for the year and beyond in terms of your pub­lish­ing career and what you would like to see pub­lished in the future? 

I have so many ideas and not enough time! I’m work­ing on revis­ing the sequel for LEI right now and work­ing on a young adult con­tem­po­rary nov­el that I describe as Pride and Prej­u­dice meets WILD. I’d love to do well enough that I’m able to get back to Hawaiʻi and spend time with kei­ki in the schools there.

Hopes and dreams? How big you want to know? Heck, if we go big time, I’d love for some­one like Dwayne John­son or Jason Momoa or Barack Oba­ma to pick it up (they all have daugh­ters and prob­a­bly oth­er kids that they could gift it to after they’re pau read­ing) and talk about it so that it gets on the radar of Tai­ka Wait­i­ti and scooped up into a movie. Then some mys­te­ri­ous bene­fac­tor who is look­ing to give back to kāna­ka in Hawaiʻi offers to give a copy to every kid in Hawaiʻi (so many times grow­ing up I nev­er had mon­ey to get a book at those book fairs) and rents out the movie the­aters so all the kids and their fam­i­lies can go see it for free. 

Clear­ly I’m not real­is­tic when it comes down to the fact that this is a busi­ness since I want to just give it all away. I’d absolute­ly love to have a long, steady career in writ­ing, but even if LEI is the only fic­tion book I ever sell, it’ll have been an incred­i­ble expe­ri­ence.

I love your big dreams, Malia. What beliefs are your work challenging?

I’m not sure if this is chal­leng­ing beliefs, nec­es­sar­i­ly, but I’m try­ing to do a cou­ple things with this story:

  1. Help kids who might not feel like they are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of their own cul­tures or eth­nic­i­ties under­stand that they are enough and
  2. Help increase aware­ness of some of the issues Hawai­ians are fac­ing in an age appro­pri­ate way that doesn’t feel over­ly teachy/preachy— men­tion­ing the day the Hawai­ian flag was tak­en down from ‘Iolani Palace, by men­tion­ing the tele­scopes on Mau­nakea and pro­tec­tion efforts there, hav­ing Anna face dis­crim­i­na­tion by a local girl when she doesn’t pick the right sticky rice at the gro­cery store.

Do you have any expe­ri­ences as a Native Hawai­ian writer that you might share with our read­ers? What would you like to see change in the indus­try regard­ing the accep­tance of BIPOC creators? 

Our voic­es are so impor­tant! The way we view the world, inter­act with nature and our fam­i­lies, process trau­ma, and per­haps come from a more col­lec­tivist cul­ture (pri­or­i­tiz­ing the group above the indi­vid­ual) are all so dif­fer­ent than expe­ri­ences tra­di­tion­al­ly por­trayed in stories.

Some of us don’t fol­low tra­di­tion­al west­ern sto­ry­telling pat­terns, and that’s okay! I’m real­ly excit­ed about some new up and com­ing Kana­ka authors, like Makana Yamamoto’s Ham­ma­jang Luck and Megan Kakimoto’s Every Drop Is A Man’s Night­mare and your own Kahoʻo­lawe! All of our sto­ries are impor­tant, and it’s nec­es­sary for a pletho­ra of us to have our voic­es out there so none of us is bur­dened with rep­re­sent­ing the entire lāhui, the entire Native Hawai­ian pop­u­la­tion. We are each so unique with­in our shared expe­ri­ences, it is crit­i­cal that read­ers are able to see Hawai­ians as indi­vid­ual fla­vors, not just all coconut all the time.

What advice would you give an aspir­ing writer? 

Find oth­er writ­ers to learn with, prac­tice with, and com­mis­er­ate with! If you love it, it isn’t a waste of time. If your strengths lie else­where, you can do both! Keep this as a hob­by as you explore oth­er things as well.

Is there a fun fact youʻd like to share about your­self with young readers? 

Hmm, one of my ear­lobes is attached, and the oth­er isn’t. Oh, and I have a preau­ric­u­lar pit on one ear. And I get ran­dom songs stuck in my head a lot of times and end up mak­ing epic mash ups of songs but can nev­er remem­ber any of them. Oth­er­wise, I’d have been an awe­some DJ.

What kinds of books do you enjoy read­ing? Any favorites? 

As a kid I loved Garfield and The Far Side (I prob­a­bly would have devoured graph­ic nov­els if they’d been around!). Then I got into creepi­er things, RL Stine to Christo­pher Pike to Stephen King (it was quite the jump, but there weren’t many young adult options that I knew of way back in the 1900s). Now I love read­ing fun­ny, action-packed mid­dle grade sto­ries and young adult or adult rom-coms with strong female leads and lots of wit­ty ban­ter. I go through them too quick­ly to remem­ber a favorite!

Do you have an online pres­ence? Do your read­ers con­tact you? What do they say? 

My web­site is MaliaMaunakea.com, and on social media I’m on Twit­ter, Insta­gram, and Face­book. My book was­n’t out then, but I did some vir­tu­al class­room vis­its in Feb­ru­ary and read a cou­ple chap­ters of my book to kids, and a num­ber of the class­es sent me thank you notes. Oh, my good­ness, my heart was not pre­pared for the sweet­ness and love­li­ness of their expres­sions. They are why writ­ing for kids is the best thing ever. 

It was so much fun talk­ing sto­ry with you, Malia! Maha­lo nui loa for shar­ing your man­a’o with us! E pili mau nā pōmaikaʻi me ʻoe (best wishes!)

To read more about Malia, includ­ing her cool list of fun facts, vis­it her web­site, MaliaMaunakea.com. Pho­to cred­it: Kahi­ki Photography