Right now, many people are dreaming of visiting Hawaii, and many of us in the Hawaiian islands are dreaming of a day when we can explore and enjoy every inch of our island homes.
Until we can experience all that Hawaii has to offer together, we’ve put together a list of our favorite books about Hawaii so you can explore the island’s unique culture and fascinating history from the comfort of your favorite chair. (Feel free to set up a beach chair on your lawn to set the mood!)
You’ll find something for everyone in this list: history buffs, culture aficionados, creation story collectors, outdoor enthusiasts and book lovers who love stories that transport them to other times and places. Each one will give you a little taste of Hawaii to tide you over for now—and whet your appetite for more!
Did we miss your favorite? We’d love to hear from you. Head on over to Facebook and leave us a comment! We’re always looking for our next great read.
Start from the Beginning with These Hawaiian Creation Stories
Take a deep dive into the origin stories of the Hawaiian people to get a deeper understanding of the culture that underpins everyday life in the Hawaiian islands. Our favorites include:
Pele: Goddess of Hawaii’s Volcanoes by Herb Kawainui Kane
When Kilauea erupted in 2018, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcano practically became a household name. But how much do you really know about the alluring and mysterious goddess Pele? This beautifully illustrated book will get you up to speed on the legends and stories that surround this fiery figure, who is credited with forming the islands we enjoy today.
The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant translated by Martha Warren Beckwith
For many years, Hawaiians relied on the oral tradition of chant and song to pass down the history of their people. In 1889, King David Kalakaua had the chant printed from a manuscript that he owned, preserving the Hawaiian creation chant for generations to come. If you want to understand the Hawaiian culture’s interdependent relationship between humans and nature, the Kumulipo will take you back to the origins of the world, where kanaka (people) are the children of the aina (land) and everything else that was created. Just as parents care for their children, and vice versa, so the land and the people are meant to take care of each other. The Kumulipo establishes that familial bond of caretaking—and offers its readers a deep understanding of the origin stories that underpin the values Hawaiians hold dear.
The Legends and Myths Of Hawaii by David Kalakaua
Although some have criticized this book for being too geared toward a Western audience, this collection of historical information, geography, and Hawaiian creation stories has also garnered praise for its captivating storytelling. This book gives you a sense of what it might have been like to sit at the feet of the Merrie Monarch himself during one of his famous parties and hear the stories of his people, straight from the source. The best part? The text is available for free at Project Gutenberg.
Take a Multi-Faceted Look at Hawaiian History
If you enjoyed the origin stories of the Hawaiian people, you may find its more recent history even more engaging. As you make the transition between Hawaii’s ancient and modern history, we’d suggest you start with this book, written in the mid-19th century, which documents the transformation of Hawaiian culture after the arrival of Europeans:
Hawaiian Antiquities: Moolelo Hawaii by David Malo
David Malo was raised in pre-Christian Hawaii, under the rule of Kamehameha I. In the 1820s, he moved to Lahaina, became a student of the Reverend William Richards and converted to Christianity. As such, his life spans both the pre- and post-European Hawaiian eras, giving him a rare perspective. Scholars note that his grammar and facts aren’t always 100% accurate, but what he lacks in precision, Malo more than makes up for it in unique cultural insights. The book has been digitized by Google, and you can read it online.
Hawaii’s History by Hawaii’s Queen by Queen Liliuokalani
And while we’re talking about fascinating perspectives, there’s perhaps none more insightful than the story of the last days of the Hawaiian Kingdom, as experienced by its final monarch, Queen Liliuokalani. Published the same year of her overthrow and subsequent imprisonment in Iolani Palace, Hawaii’s History offers an intimate look at Liliuokalani’s life, as well as the political maneuverings that led to Hawaii’s annexation. If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of Hawaii’s statehood, start your research with this first-hand account.
Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands by Gavin Daws
Probably the most canonical history of the Hawaiian islands, Shoal of Time was written by a former professor of history at the University of Hawaii. Although it was published in 1968, the book continues to top of many best-of lists. Some argue it has a “dated” feel, while still others criticize the author’s haole-centric viewpoint. If you’re looking for alternative narratives to discover Hawaii’s history, we suggest:
- Julia Flynn Siler, Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure
- James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii
- Sarah Vowell, Unfamiliar Fishes
Get a Deep Dive on Hawaiian Culture and Recent History
Once you’ve gotten a deeper look at where Hawaii has been, you’ve got the foundation you need to enjoy the full range and meaning of these books about Hawaii’s recent past.
Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku by David Davis
Just as David Malo’s life bridged the pre- and post-European eras of Hawaii, the life of Duke Kahanamoku also had its feet in two distinct time periods. Kahanamoku was born while Liliuokalani still reigned as the queen of the independent Kingdom of Hawaii, and he lived to see Hawaii inducted as the 50th state. While his statue in Waikiki immortalizes him as the legendary waterman most remember him as, Kahanamoku had an intriguing, multi-faceted life that included becoming sheriff of Honolulu, falling victim to a targeted campaign that forced him out of the islands, winning a subsequent libel suit, doing a stint as a Hollywood actor, reigning as an Olympic champion and many more. This book takes you on a whirlwind tour of all of these milestones—and more.
Pidgin to Da Max by Douglas Simonson, Pat Sasaki and Ken Sakata
Although we wouldn’t recommend trying to speak pidgin as a haole (trust us on this one), understanding pidgin will most certainly come in handy at some point during life in Hawaii. And if you’re stuck at home, dreaming of those far-away islands, nothing will make you smile faster than these illustrations of some of the most common pidgin words and phrases you’ll hear in Hawaii. The book was written in 1981, so take it with a grain of salt, but it’s a classic that’s worth a perusal and always good for a chuckle.
Surf Is Where You Find It by Gerry Lopez
It’s hard to think about the North Shore’s most famous break—Pipeline—without thinking about the man who mastered it, Mr. Pipeline himself, Gerry Lopez. Some surf books are only interesting to fellow surfers, but Surf Is Where You Find It will appeal to anyone who wants to hop a ride with the Honolulu native as he finds his unique place in the world. There is an electronic version of the book available. However, the hard copy (though pricey) is worth it for the full-color photos of Hawaii, Indonesia and beyond.
Ka Lei: The Leis of Hawai‘i by Marie McDonald
There’s something magical about receiving a traditional Hawaiian lei greeting. This tradition runs so deeply through Hawaiian culture that it can be traced all the way back to the ancient Polynesians who originally settled these islands. As one of the very few books on this tradition, Ka Lei will take you on a deep dive into the making of and meaning of these beautiful offerings. After reading this book, you’ll look at your next lei in a whole new light.
Sunny Skies, Shady Characters: Cops, Killers and Corruption in the Aloha State by James Dooley
While some Mainland readers have reported less enthusiasm for this title, those who live in Hawaii—or have a particular interest in the state—will enjoy this inside look into organized crime and political corruption in 1970s Hawaii. The author, an investigative reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser and KITV shares his observations and anecdotes after pursuing these stories first-hand for this true-crime thriller.
Enjoy Masterful Storytelling About the Hawaiian Islands
Finally, if the oral tradition of the Hawaiian people has taught us anything, it’s that we human beings can’t get enough of a good story. Our picks will offer you four wildly different but equally captivating views of the Aloha State.
Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport
This first book by the Oahu-born author is a sweeping epic that focuses on four granddaughters and the matriarch of the family, Pono. Davenport’s richly-drawn characters will pull you in and show you some new angles on Hawaiian culture, as well as the people living in it.
This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila
To live in Hawaii is to understand the push and pull between the tourist industry and the people who call Hawaii their home. While many people see Hawaii as a place to drink mai tais on the beach, Kahahauwila’s short story collection offers a complex take on what Hawaii can be—with all its highs and lows.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Although this memoir splits its time with locations other than Hawaii, Finnegan offers some eloquent descriptions of his younger years in Honolulu—including making his first friendship at the surf lineup at Cliffs—as well as his stint in 1970s Maui. This Pulitzer-Prize winner was also a favorite of Oahu native Barack Obama, who explored his own early history in Song from My Father.
The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative by W.S. Merwin
And now for something a little different: historical narrative poetry—the readable kind. Take a journey with a 19th-century Hawaiian family who, after being accused of harboring leprosy, flee into the wilds of Kauai with a group of soldiers hot on their heels. Based on a true story, this epic captures the ripple effects of European influence in the Hawaiian islands.
Honorable Mention: We couldn’t share all our favorites, but there were just a few more we couldn’t leave out, including:
- Hotel Honolulu by Paul Theroux
- Molokai by Alan Brennert
- Hawaii by James Michener
Bonus: Want to get the whole ohana in on it? Check out this list of 30 keiki books to add to your library from Honolulu Family.
What did we miss? Don’t forget to share your favorites with us on Facebook.
Explore the Hawaiian Islands from Anywhere
Whether you’re on the Mainland or out here with us in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, cracking a book can transport you instantly to another time and place. Using these book recommendations, we hope you take the opportunity to explore everything that’s gone into shaping this modern paradise, including the island’s fascinating history and rich, complex culture.
Finally, when you’re ready to explore the idea of a Hawaii move, we’d be happy to help. Just reach out to us to get a complimentary quote. We do mainland moves, interisland moves, local moves and international moves. Whether you want to make Hawaii your home or say aloha to a new destination, we can help!