Fine and colorful picture books about Hawaii abound, as do adult books, both fiction and nonfiction, and there are a fair number of YA novels. But what if a middle grader wants to curl up with a good novel set in Hawaii? These are few, but still there are some engaging choices.
Graham Salisbury’s books stand out. Most are set in Kona on the island of Hawaii where he grew up, and they draw in part on family stories. Under the Blood Read Sun (Yearling Reprint, 1995) is the story of a young Japanese American boy, Tomi, and his haole (Caucasian) friend Billy just before and after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Under the Blood-red Sun has just been made into a moving locally-produced and acted film that was featured at the Hawaii Book and Music Festival in May. I predict it will be the talk of film festivals all over when it is released September 14. A twentieth-anniversary edition of the book will also appear in September.
Well okay, maybe Under the Blood Red Sun is technically YA because the main boy characters are thirteen, but the actor who plays Billy first read and loved the book when he was eight. Also launching September 14 is the fourth and latest book in that WWII series, Hunt for the Bamboo Rat. In it a 17-year-old Japanese boy from Hawaii undergoes harrowing experiences as an undercover agent for the U.S. Army in the Philippines during the War.
Among my other favorites of Salisbury’s books are Jungle Dogs (Yearling, 1999) in which a boy must overcome his fear of the wild dogs along his paper route and learn to hold his own with troublemakers at school, and Night of the Howling Dogs (Wendy Lamb Books, 2007), based on a true story of a boy whose courage
Throughout his career, Salisbury has worked with one editor, Wendy Lamb, and this has proved a winning collaboration. In addition to MG and YA novels, Salisbury has written a collection of stories called Island Boyz (Wendy Lamb Books, 2002), full of the rich flavor of island life and the inter-kid relations and negotiations that are so much part of growing up in the islands. For those on the younger end of Middle Grade, he has also recently published an amusing series of books about Calvin Coconut, a boy character who lives in Kailua on the island of Oahu, where Graham also once lived and went to school.
Shan Correa’s Gaff (Peachtree, 2010) gives a glimpse into the semi-secret world of cockfighting, a rural island tradition many visitors are hardly aware exists. Seventh-grader Paul Silva, whose disabled father raises fighting cocks for a living, thinks the birds are magnificent. But he has been sheltered from the nature of the fighting, and once he sees it first-hand, he vows to get his father out. A poignant story of courage and coming-of-age.
For mystery/thriller-lovers, try P.J. Neri’s Hawaii Chiller series (Bess Press) if you can find them, or Elaine Masters’ Thief in Chinatown (Island Hertiage, 1998).
Want something intriguing kids can sink their teeth into (or vice versa)? Don’t miss the exciting new Niuhi Shark Saga trilogy. Hawaii, with all its myths and ghosts and traditions, would seem an ideal fermenting ground for middle-grade fantasy, but whoever writes it needs to be well versed in the stories already here before making anything up or they’ll be off-pitch.
Now we have we have Lehua Parker who grew up in the islands, knows the old tales, knows island people and life, and lets all reverberate through her own very original, page-turning books. Two have been published: One Boy, No Water (Jolly Fish, 2012) and One Shark, No Swim (Jolly Fish, 2013). A third will come out in 2015. In the series, 11-year old Zader has been adopted as a newborn under strange circumstances into a family of surfers and fishermen. Trouble is, he’s allergic to water, and when he eats raw seafood he has haunting dreams. His Uncle Kahana, a marvelous combination of mystic and down-home, no-nonsense elder, knows a lot more than he’s telling about Zader’s origins and destiny. Suspense and humor guaranteed.
Let’s hope, with the success of these books, there will be many more in the future for middle-grade readers to enjoy!
Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011) and My Dog Has Flies, Poetry for Hawaii’s Kids (BeachHouse, 2005)