15 books set in Hawaii to read before visiting
Updated: Jul 24
Hawaii novels, memoirs, and non-fiction to give you insight into Hawaii's culture and history
Have you ever noticed how challenging it is to find a good list of books set in Hawaii? There is a rich variety of Hawaiiana, or Hawaii novels and other Hawaii books, out there that are sadly so little known to readers around the world.
I've been working on my list of books set in Hawaii for more than three years, including the two years I spent living there. I visited nearly every Hawaii bookstore and perused their local sections to find the best Hawaii novels, short story collections, and non-fiction.
It's easy to dream of visiting Hawaii's white sandy beaches and green, dramatic mountains, or sipping mai tais as you watch a Hawaii sunset. Trust me, it's all that and more. But altogether too many visitors flock to Hawaii each year to live out this dream without really understanding anything about Hawaiian history and culture.
Finding and reading even a few of the books on this list of books set in Hawaii is one of the best ways you can make sure your trip to Hawaii is ethical, culturally sensitive, and personally rewarding. These beautiful islands have a rich history, with joy and pain, traditions and prejudice, heritage and pride. Locals' frustration with culturally unaware visitors is one of the main surprising things nobody tells you about visiting Hawaii. You, however, have a choice to be a better informed visitor.
About the Hawaii books on this list:
I made a point of discovering as many books by Hawaiian authors as possible to feature on this list. Lots of people have traveled to Hawaii and written about it from an outsider's perspective, but you really learn the most and honor Hawaiian history and culture by reading about it from those who belong to the islands.
Even so, who is considered as a "local" in Hawaii is not a hard and fast definition. Because of mass immigration to the Hawaiian islands since 1778, nearly everyone with Hawaiian ancestry is of mixed heritage: also descended from white colonizers or Asian immigrants. The interplay of race as well as personal history with the island is complicated when it comes to identifying Hawaii locals.
On this list of books set in Hawaii, I’ve tried to include a diverse sampling of perspectives, and I've made a note on the author of each book so you understand where the stories and information are coming from. This is in an effort to help you ensure you are getting a well-rounded perspective on Hawaii. You'll find the themes of racial prejudices and identity in just about every book on this list, because it's an ongoing tension and search for identity in Hawaii to this day.
So many of the Hawaii novels, in particular, feature characters trying to define their own identity and place in Hawaii’s complex social and racial environment, and in many cases, characters trying to make peace with the reality that they are descended from both colonizers and kanaka.
I want to be fully transparent that I am writing this list as a Hawaii outsider; although I lived in Hawaii for two years, I will never claim to be a Hawaii local. I write this with respect and admiration for Hawaiian culture and as a jumping off point for those wanting to dive into this largely unexplored regional literature. I am sharing my findings not as a comprehensive guide to Hawaiian history or Hawaiian books, but as a starting point for those who are new and curious.
I also recommend checking out the following pages, organizations, and businesses to continue your education and foray into books set in Hawaii and the history of this island kingdom.
Where to purchase these books on Hawaii
Because I became aware of many of these books by perusing Hawaii bookstores, many of them are lesser known and may not be readily available in libraries or mainstream bookstores.
For those ones that are available there, I've created a Hawaii book shopping list on Bookshop.org. Buying from this website makes sure that the profits go to independent bookstores rather than large corporations.
For those that you can't find there, I recommend checking out my lists of Hawaii bookstores below. Try calling or emailing someone at the bookstore; many of them will be willing to arrange to ship you a copy of the book!
Without further ado, let's get to the books!
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Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport
Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport is a great entry point for those looking for Hawaii novels written by Hawaiian authors. This novel is ambitious. In it, Davenport tells a multi-generational story from a Tahitian princess fleeing an arranged marriage to Pono, the present-day family matriarch who is trying to pass on values and tradition to four of her mixed race granddaughters.
This Hawaii novel covers so much ground it really could have been a series, but by weaving the generational stories together, Davenport allows the reader to better understand the present-day characters. Although this makes for a longer read, it allows for a richer experience. To understand the Hawaii of today, it is absolutely essential to understand its history, and that’s what Kiana Davenport encapsulates in this novel of Hawaii.
Note on the author: Kiana Davenport is descended from a full-blooded Hawaiian mother and a white father who met her mother while stationed in Hawaii serving in the US military.
Waimea Summer by John Dominis Holt
Waimea Summer is an unassuming book but with great depth. It's the story of a mixed-descent Hawaiian teenage boy spending his summer with his uncle on the Big Island of Hawaii. The narrator is a kind of Nick Carroway character; on the surface, the story is mainly about the events and forces in his extended family's life. However, it's the narrator's internal struggle for identity and place that is the truly compelling part of this Hawaii novel.
This book set in Hawaii is a slow burn with a fantastic ending. I recommend it to those who have read a couple other books on this list or are already familiar with major events in Hawaiian history and commonly used Hawaiian words and phrases, as this does not translate Hawaiian words or explain Hawaiian history for the benefit of an uninformed reader.
Note on the author: John Dominis Holt was a Native Hawaiian writer and cultural historian who was recognized as a Living Treasure of Hawaii for his contributions to the Hawaiian Renaissance.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Sharks in the Time of Saviors might be my favorite of the Hawaii novels on this list. In fact, I listed it as one of my top reading recommendations from 2022, so you can read even more of my thoughts about it there.
In summary, this book set in Hawaii employs magical realism to bring ancient Hawaiian myths and Hawaiian beliefs into the modern day. The story centers on three Hawaiian siblings, Nainoa, Dean, and Kaui, and on their unique journeys and relationships with the islands. Each character in the Flores family has a different manifestation of ancient power, and each responds to it in their own unique way.
Note on the author: Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii. He identifies as a mixed-race-African-and-European-American kamaʻāina (child of the land).
Hawaiki Rising: Hōkūle‘a, Nainoa Thompson, and The Hawaiian Renaissance by Sam Low
Hawaiki Rising is a non-fiction Hawaii book about the first Hōkūle‘a journeys during the Hawaiian cultural revival of the 1970s. Investigative reporter Sam Low tells the story of the first group of people who decided to honor Hawaii's history by reenacting its origins.
This pioneering and heterogeneous group of people recreated a double-hulled canoe using only traditional Polynesian methods. In it, they embarked on a journey to travel from Hawaii to Tahiti and back using only traditional navigational methods (no modern instruments, not even a compass).
If you were intrigued by the wayfinding methods showcased in the Disney movie Moana, this is the book you should read to learn more about the ancient Polynesian tradition and its role in the settlement of Hawaii thousands of years ago.
Note on the author: Sam Low is an investigative reporter who accompanied the crews on their first Hōkūle‘a journeys in order to write about it.
Moloka'i Nui Ahina: Summers on the Lonely Isle by Kirby Wright
Moloka’i Nui Ahina is a fictional memoir set in Hawaii and narrated by a hapa boy named Jeff, whose story is first begun in Punahou Blues. Each summer, Jeff and his brother Ben are sent to spend the summer with their grandmother, a paniolo (cowgirl/cowboy) on the tiny Hawaiian island of Moloka’i.
This Molokai novel is a coming-of-age tale of the brothers, detailing their challenges, exploits, and adventures on the “lonely isle." Moloka’i Nui Ahina offers a peek into the Hawaiian paniolo lifestyle on the northern half of Moloka'i through Jeff and Ben's spitfire grandmother, Grandma Daniels. She is certainly a character worth reading... tough, determined, and full of grit.
This is a great option for a Hawaii novel to learn more about Moloka'i beyond the infamous leper colony in Kalaupapa.
Note on the author: Kirby Wright was born and raised in Honolulu and graduated from Punahou School. He’s of mixed English/Irish/Italian/Hawaiian heritage.
Madame Pele: True Encounters with Hawaii'is Fire Goddess by Rick Carroll
Madame Pele is an excellent example of a Hawaiian folklore book that shows how ancient beliefs still influence life on the islands today.
Tradition has it that Pele, the Hawaiian fire goddess, lives primarily in the Kilauea Crater on the Big Island. Hawaiians largely abandoned their Pele worship when most of the population converted to Christianity in the 1800s, but stories of sightings of Madame Pele continue to be prolific throughout the Hawaiian islands to this day. She often appears to people either as a young woman wearing red or as an old woman, sometimes hitchhiking.
Whether or not you believe in Pele, this story collection will give you insight into a prominent and enduring aspect of Hawaiian culture, and it's sure to give you what locals call "chicken skin."
Note on the author: Rick Carroll has authored/edited several books compiling Hawaiian folklore, including the popular Hawaii’s Best Spooky Tales series. He has spent decades collecting stories from the islands.
Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
This Moloka’i novel is likely the most widely known novel set in Hawaii. It fictionalizes many of the actual experiences of those living in the Hawaiian leper colony of Kalaupapa on Molokai between 1891-1970. In reading Moloka'i, you'll be immersed in the story of Rachel, a native Hawaiian girl who is diagnosed with leprosy at the age of 6 and is taken from her family to live at Kalaupapa.
Moloka'i will feel very familiar in its storytelling to western readers and is a nice, easy Hawaii novel to put on your reading list. You can read more of my review of Molokai along with my recommended tea pairing.
Note on the author: Alan Brennert is not from Hawaii, though his book has been received warmly there. It's definitely a worthwhile read. As always, I recommend balancing out a book written by an "outsider" with some of the other books on this list written by Hawaiian authors.
Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen by Queen Lili'uokalani
Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen is a really under-read and important book about Hawaii that well deserves a place on this list. It is the non-fiction account of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy written by the deposed monarch herself, Queen Lili'uokalani.
You'll read of the reign of her brother, David Kalākaua, his death and her own ascent to the throne, and then her arrest, trial, and imprisonment in her own palace as Hawaii was forcably annexed into the United States.
Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen is a perfect entry point into learning more about this proud island kingdom. Short chapters make it very readable and a pretty condensed history, and from an obviously important source.
Note on the author: Queen Lili'uokalani was the last reigning monarch of Hawaii.
Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre by Lois-Ann Yamanaka
Lois-Ann Yamakama is one of the most well-known and beloved writers to come from Hawaii. Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre was her first book. It is written in Hawaiian Pidgin and is divided into four novellas written in verse, each novella centering around a new set of characters, primarily young Asian American girls living in Hawaii.
Reading this book set in Hawaii will definitely be an adjustment for most readers, especially those who are not familiar with Hawaiian Pidgin. It might feel awkward at first, but it’s definitely possible to get the hang of it if you stick with it. The language adjustment combined with a lot of difficult themes (physical, emotional, and sexual abuse) make this a difficult read but a worthwhile one.
Yamanaka said of her work, “My work involves bringing to the page the utter complexity, ferocious beauty, and sometimes absurdity of our ethnic relationships here in the islands.”
Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre earned Yamanaka the Pushcart Prize for Poetry and the fiction award from the Association for Asian American Studies.
Note on the author: Lois-Ann Yamanaka was born and raised in Hawaii. She got her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and currently works as a teacher in Honolulu.
The Legends and Myths of Hawaii by King David Kalākaua
During his reign in the 1800s, King David Kalākaua, or the “Merry Monarch” as he was known, grew concerned about the rapid disappearance of Hawaiian language and culture with the growing influence of outsiders in Hawaii. He was disturbed to see the Hawaiian language and ancient oral histories slipping away.
King David helped inspire a renaissance of Hawaiian culture. As part of that, he sought to record many of the myths and legends passed down in Hawaii for centuries before they could be lost. One of the results of this effort is this book, The Legends and Myths of Hawaii, which is as close as we can really get to reading the original Hawaiian myths and histories.
The stories are engaging, exciting, and illuminating into Hawaiian culture, folklore, and history. Pick up a copy of this important Hawaii book before your trip to the islands.
Note on the author: King David Kalākaua, the “Merry Monarch,” was the last King of Hawaii.
House of Pride and other tales of Hawaii by Jack London
Most readers would probably identify the author Jack London with the Klondike, as most of his famous books and stories take place there, like The Call of the Wild and "To Build a Fire." He also famously built a custom home in California which is open to visitors as part of the Jack London State Park.
What you may not know is that Jack London actually traveled to Hawaii multiple times with his wife, Charmaine London. They loved the then-called Sandwich Islands, and Jack London wrote several stories set there.
In these stories, Jack London captures aspects of Hawaiian society during a unique period of time, when there was a huge decline in the native population, mass immigration from Asia to work plantations, and plantation owners and white missionaries effectively ruling the islands.
My favorite of the stories is "Koolau the Leper," which fictionalizes the true story of a leper on Kauai who held his ground in the mountains rather than be taken from his family to Kalaupapa.
Note on the author: Jack London was an American author who had already achieved some renown before his journey to Hawaii. He made many friends in the islands, including many prominent in Hawaiian society. The perspective of The House of Pride and other tales of Hawaii can best be described as that of an adoring outsider.
Calvin Coconut series by Graham Salisbury
Yes, I am including a children’s middle grade chapter book series on my list of Hawaii novels, and not only for the kids!
I came upon the Calvin Coconut series by accident when I was browsing a used bookshop on the Big Island of Hawaii, and I’m so glad I did. The title character, Calvin Coconut, is a fourth grader who lives in Kailua on the windward side of O’ahu with his single mom, his little sister, and eventually a teenage girl his mom takes in.
Calvin’s struggles and adventures are both widely applicable and charmingly specific. There are many Kailua town landmarks that locals will recognize, and the books are infused with the unique magic of growing up in a small beach town on O'ahu. Kids and adults alike can learn a lot about growing up in Hawaii by checking out his fun chapter book series.
Note on the author: Graham Salisbury grew up in Kailua, just like Calvin Coconut, and attended Kailua Elementary, just like Calvin.
Folk Wisdom of Hawaii by Ann Kondo Corum
Folk Wisdom of Hawaii is a cute Hawaii book I found in one of the many Hawaii bookstores I've visited. I recommend reading if you can find a copy. It's a collection of folk beliefs, aphorisms, and superstitions that are specific to Hawaiian locals.
Reading this book, you'll get a peek into local knowledge and traditions, like which leis to give for which occasions, how to assure a successful fishing trip (tip: don't bring a banana in the boat!), and what plants have the power to keep evil spirits away.
Note on the author: Anna Kondo Corum is the author of many books on Hawaiian folklore and tradition, including a spam cookbook, folk remedies from Hawaii, and other books on cooking traditions in Hawaii.
Paddling my own Canoe by Audrey Sutherland
Paddling My Own Canoe is a real-life Hawaii adventure tale. It was written by Audrey Sutherland, a single mom in the 1950s and a transplant to Hawaii. Reading her account, it's obvious that this unorthodox 1950s mother never could seem to get enough of two things: raw Hawaiian coastline or adrenaline.
Sutherland shares her story of becoming obsessed with the beautiful northeast coastline of Moloka’i, and her journeys she makes over the course of years to explore the untouched parts of the island. These journeys were always solo, and nearly always death-defying, involving kayaking, swimming, cliff scaling, and living alone in the jungle. You may just need to pick your jaw up off the floor a few times at her nerve... and sometimes, stubborn stupidity.
“I had to go back again. To be that terrified of anything, that incompetent, survive by that small a margin— I'd better analyze, practice, then return and do it right.”
While I certainly don’t recommend following in Sutherland's footsteps, Paddling My Own Canoe gets my recommendation for books set in Hawaii you should read. It's short, exciting, and undeniably passionate.
Note on the author: Audrey Sutherland was an “outsider” on the Hawaiian islands who fell in love with its beauty and made it her home.
Freckled: a memoir of growing up wild in Hawaii by TW Neal
If you enjoyed Tara Westover’s Educated or The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, then Freckled is the Hawaii memoir for you. In it, Neal tells her story of being a white, red-headed, freckled girl who grew up in Kauai. Her parents were hippies and mostly squatters. Growing up, they moved around O'ahu and Kauai in and around unofficial hippie settlements, wanting to live off the land and surf as much as possible.
Freckled is an honest, nuanced, and well-written first-hand account that delves into some of the dynamics between Native Hawaiians and outsider haoles (white people). It's also just a very compelling memoir and worth the read, even if you're not specifically looking for books set in Hawaii.
Note on the author: TW Neal grew up on Oahu and Kauai. She grew up with the experience of being an unwelcome outsider, yet someone with deep ties to the land and the people of Hawaii.
What other books set in Hawaii have you read and loved? Drop them in the comments, and don't forget to subscribe to my blog so you don't miss any upcoming posts.
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