The best nonfiction books to read before your Hawaii vacation

Why am I passionate about this?

My passion to write about Hawaiʻi began with a desire to see the world that I knew and loved reflected in literary form, complete with all its complexities and nuance. Growing up alongside Hawaiʻi’s sovereignty movement, there was so much I didn’t understand. School textbooks didn’t mention Hawaiʻi. The little I learned about our culture and history was from dancing hula. So when I started reading some of the books on this list, it put all of my memories into context. Everything about my home became clearer to see (and therefore write about). The true beauty of Hawaiʻi exists behind its postcard image, and this is how you get there!


I wrote...

Book cover of Hula

What is my book about?

Hiʻi is proud to be a Naupaka, a family renown for its contributions to hula and Hawaiʻi, but there’s a lot she doesn’t understand. She’s never met her legendary grandmother and her mother has never revealed the identity of her father. Worse, unspoken divides within her tight-knit community have started to grow, creating fractures that are somehow entangled with her own history. In hula, Hi'i sees a chance to solidify her place within her family. But in order to win the next Miss Aloha Hula competition, she will have to turn her back on the very thing she was fighting for. 

Hula is a spellbinding debut that offers a rare glimpse into a forgotten kingdom that still exists in the heart of its people.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen

Jasmin Iolani Hakes Why did I love this book?

When I was growing up, all I learned about my home was the year Hawaiʻi became a state.

My mother forbid me from speaking local pidgin at home because of the prevailing stereotype that locals were uneducated, unrefined, and not able to understand the complexities of the wider world.

Television and film portrayed people from Hawaiʻi as pagans needing saving from themselves, who drank and sinned themselves to death unless saved by white foreigners. In more ways than one, the loss of the Hawaiian Kingdom was placed on the shoulders of leaders too weak and simple-minded to maintain and protect it.

Hawai’i’s Story challenges that. Written by Queen Liliʻiuokalani after she was imprisoned and overthrown by a group backed by U.S. Marines and intended to aid in the fight against annexation, this memoir reveals a Hawaiian Kingdom that is the most literate nation in the world at the time and a monarchy all too aware of the outside forces looking to exploit and profit off the island kingdom’s resources.

It describes an upbringing of travel and religion and education, of a people in love with knowledge and poetry and music, and a kingdom whose political workings were as complex and nuanced as any European one.

When writing my book, one of my priorities was to challenge the pervasive, reductive perceptions of Hawaiʻi. The queen’s words served as my writing foundation.

By Liliuokalani,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen (1898) is an autobiography by Lili'uokalani. Published in 1898, the book was written in the aftermath of Lili'uokalani's attempt to appeal on behalf of her people to President Grover Cleveland, a personal friend. Although it inspired Cleveland to demand her reinstatement, the United States Congress published the Morgan Report in 1894, which denied U.S. involvement in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen appeared four years later as a final effort by Lili'uokalani to advocate on behalf of Hawaiian sovereignty, but it unfortunately came too late. That same year, President…


Book cover of From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii

Jasmin Iolani Hakes Why did I love this book?

In the ’70s through the early ’90s, Hawaiʻi went through massive social change.

There was a growing consciousness of the manipulation and exploitation that had accompanied Hawaiʻi’s colonization. With that came a collective desire to right the wrongs of history.

Trask describes the institutional racism, discrimination, and closed doors she faced as she attempted to forge a path for Native Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaiʻi while participating in a growing movement against continued occupation. 

While working on my book, some suggested I soften the political thread woven within the story. It was Trask’s essay “Lovely Hula Hands” (a chapter of From a Native Daughter) that encouraged me to stay true to the portrayal of Hawaiʻi that countered the unflawed, pristine playground image sold to tourists.

Written at a time when Hawai’i’s history was still being glossed over, Trask’s interviews and essays provide an unapologetic perspective and experience that will enrich any visitor’s understanding of Hawaiʻi, and therefore the lens in which they experience it. 

By Haunani-Kay Trask,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked From a Native Daughter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This revised text includes material that builds on issues and concerns raised in the first edition. It explores issues of native Hawaiian student organizing at the University of Hawaii, the master plan of the native Hawaiian self-governing organization Ka Lahuni Hawaii and its platform on the four political arenas of sovereignty, the 1989 Hawaii declaration of the Hawaii ecumenical coalition on tourism, and a typology on racism and imperialism. Brief introductions to each of the essays bring them up to date and situate them in the native Hawaiian rights discussion.


Book cover of A Nation Rising: Hawaiian Movements for Life, Land, and Sovereignty

Jasmin Iolani Hakes Why did I love this book?

I promise not all my book picks are political! But this incredible book is a must-read, and as it explains, culture is political, politics are cultural.

There is no way to fully appreciate Hawaiian culture as it is today without being aware of what it took to keep it alive.

In this compilation, personal stories of activists and academics come together to offer a searing depiction of the cost of colonization and the ultimate love of their land that continues to fuel its resistance.

From water wars and land grabs to the touching story of how the Hawaiian language was brought back to life, A Nation Rising will broaden your understanding and appreciation for Hawaiʻi’s landmarks and tourist destinations.

By Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua (editor), Ikaika Hussey (editor), Erin Kahunawaika'ala Wright (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Nation Rising as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Nation Rising chronicles the political struggles and grassroots initiatives collectively known as the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Scholars, community organizers, journalists, and filmmakers contribute essays that explore Native Hawaiian resistance and resurgence from the 1970s to the early 2010s. Photographs and vignettes about particular activists further bring Hawaiian social movements to life. The stories and analyses of efforts to protect land and natural resources, resist community dispossession, and advance claims for sovereignty and self-determination reveal the diverse objectives and strategies, as well as the inevitable tensions, of the broad-tent sovereignty movement. The collection explores the Hawaiian political ethic of ea,…


Book cover of This Is Paradise: Stories

Jasmin Iolani Hakes Why did I love this book?

This collection of short stories offers a contemporary Hawaiʻi full of flawed characters who face challenges both unique to the islands and universal in motivation.

Kahakauwila explores the concept of paradise and the price paid for it. They are stories that capture the spirit and tenacity of Hawaiʻi, the nuanced layers of its social fabric, and brings me home every time I read them. 

The first time I read it, I was alone in a cabin in the woods in the middle of my first writing residency. Suddenly I was no longer pressed up against a wood stove trying to stay warm. Through her gifted storytelling, all the sights and sounds and smells of home came rushing in, both comforting and familiar.

You don’t need to know Hawaiʻi to enjoy this book, but by the end of reading it, you will feel like you do.

By Kristiana Kahakauwila,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked This Is Paradise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Elegant, brutal, and profound—this magnificent debut captures the grit and glory of modern Hawai'i with breathtaking force and accuracy.
 
In a stunning collection that announces the arrival of an incredible talent, Kristiana Kahakauwila travels the islands of Hawai'i, making the fabled place her own. Exploring the deep tensions between local and tourist, tradition and expectation, façade and authentic self, This Is Paradise provides an unforgettable portrait of life as it’s truly being lived on Maui, Oahu, Kaua'i and the Big Island.

In the gut-punch of “Wanle,” a beautiful and tough young woman wants nothing more than to follow in her…


Book cover of Local: A Memoir

Jasmin Iolani Hakes Why did I love this book?

Jessica Machado’s father is Hawaiian and her mother is from the American South, a factor that looms large in a place like Hawaiʻi.

As a child, Machado senses that her life is complicated by history and context, but doesn’t have the words to formulate the questions brewing within.

In this touching coming-of-age memoir, Machado grapples with some of the same haunting questions and uncertainties that inspired my writing of my book while taking us on a journey to discover if her unshakeable connection to Hawaiʻi is a blessing, a burden, or a responsibility she’s lucky to have.

A must-read for anyone who has ever left home wondering how to take it with them.

By Jessica Machado,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Local as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A powerful, lush memoir about a Hawaiian woman who ran away from paradise to discover who she is and where she belongs.

Born and raised in Hawai'i by a father whose ancestors are indigenous to the land and a mother from the American South, Jessica Machado wrestles with what it means to be "local." Feeling separate from the history and tenets of Hawaiian culture that have been buried under the continental imports of malls and MTV, Jessica often sees her homeland reflected back to her from the tourist perspective-as an uncomplicated paradise. Her existence, however, feels far from that ideal.…


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Book cover of Leora's Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II

Joy Neal Kidney Author Of What Leora Never Knew: A Granddaughter's Quest for Answers

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm the oldest granddaughter of Leora, who lost three sons during WWII. To learn what happened to them, I studied casualty and missing aircraft reports, missions reports, and read unit histories. I’ve corresponded with veterans who knew one of the brothers, who witnessed the bomber hit the water off New Guinea, and who accompanied one brother’s body home. I’m still in contact with the family members of two crew members on the bomber. The companion book, Leora’s Letters, is the family story of the five Wilson brothers who served, but only two came home.

Joy's book list on research of World War II casualties

What is my book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one; all five sons were serving their country in the military–two in the Navy and three as Army Air Force pilots.

Only two sons came home.

Leora’s Letters is the compelling true account of a woman whose most tender hopes were disrupted by great losses. Yet she lived out four…

By Joy Neal Kidney, Robin Grunder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Leora's Letters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one, all five sons were serving their country in the military. The oldest son re-enlisted in the Navy. The younger three became U.S. Army Air Force pilots. As the family optimist, Leora wrote hundreds of letters, among all her regular chores, dispensing news and keeping up the morale of the…


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Interested in Hawaii, cultural heritage, and presidential biography?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Hawaii, cultural heritage, and presidential biography.

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