Ho’onani: Hula Warrior is and is not hard to talk about. But after you say a young dancer finds her place in her society and the male hula troupe at school by being herself, you have said it all. I mean you can say how her family (but not her sister) supports her choice of being nāhū (not wahine (female) or kane or kāne (I have found both spellings) (male) but in between) and how that came about, but that takes away from the story (which hopefully that part of the review does not do too much).
This is an experience book. You have an introduction by author Heather Gale about the real people the story is based on, and how the Hawaiian culture not only accepted nāhū persons (“a gender middle”), but in fact they could be considered revered medicine people. And you learn the teacher of the story is the first openly transgender person to run in their community for a political position.
That fact was not explored in this picture book, instead focusing on Ho’onani. But that means that there is a lot of richness in this book. I had lots of questions, such as “Why do they call Ho’onani by female pronouns?” and “Who was this teacher and what was her school of inclusiveness?” and of course, “What is Ho’onani like outside this one chapter of her life?”
And the illustrations are interesting. I cannot say I loved them, but I do appreciate Mika Song’s work. They give a tone to the story while also reinforcing the tone of the text. It is a soft story, not trying to be pushy or be “in your face,” but a factually fictionalized version of true events. In some ways this is odd as when you think of Hawaii, or at least me, I think of boldly colored flowers, palm trees, and beaches. Yet, I like how the illustrations do not distract, but compliment.
From the publisher description: Ho’onani’s story first appeared in the documentary A Place in the Middle by filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson.
The publisher also says the book is for ages four and up, but I think some kids younger could look at the illustrations (as there is not much in the way of traditional action to “grab” your attention), with the older child sitting and enjoying being read to, and earlier readers (some with help) could start to solo read. And it could work as a one-on-one read or a group read aloud.