“Kapaemahu is a Glorious Picture Book” - School Library Journal

by Terry Hong – School Library Journal – May 2, 2022:

Moving across the Pacific to Hawaii finds Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, the co-creator, with Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, of the glorious picture book Kapaemahu (2022). The mythic legend of the Kapaemahu regales four Tahitian healers who arrived in Waikiki centuries ago. Neither male nor female, “they were mahu—a mixture of both in mind, heart, and spirit,” the book reveals. The people built a monument in gratitude, but the “four great boulders” eventually disappeared in the wake of U.S. colonialism and destructive tourism. The stones were finally recovered, but without their history: “The fact that the healers were mahu has been erased.” Kapaemahu reclaims the monument’s true origins by honoring the mahu.

Before the book, Kapaemahu was an animated short film that garnered international acclaim, including a 2021 Oscars short list nod. The film’s production team adapted their gorgeous moving images to the page. The book, like the film, is bilingual, presented in Olelo Niihau first, followed by the English translation. Olelo Niihau, Wong-Kalu explains in the author’s note, is “the only form of Hawaiian that has been continuously spoken since prior to the arrival of foreigners.” Wong-Kalu, who is “Kanaka—a native person descended from the original inhabitants of the islands of Hawaii,” rightfully insists, “We need to be active participants in telling our own stories in our own way.”

Like many native Hawaiian youth of her generation and generations that followed, Wong-Kalu “didn’t grow up with the presence of Hawaiian history and culture,” she says. Her broader education that began in the late 1990s at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa “cumulatively heightened [her] awareness of being Hawaiian,” including discovering the legend of Kapaemahu. Wong-Kalu, too, is neither male nor female, but mahu. “It was quite liberating to learn that something associated with mahu was so positive,” she says.

For Wong-Kalu, claiming and preserving her native heritage in a climate of cultural erasure is of critical importance: “Evidence of anything Hawaiian is fleeting or at least diminished greatly—the history of Hawaii continues to be rewritten by foreigners who are replacing our story with their story,” she says. With Kapaemahu, Wong-Kalu fights back: “I view the telling of this story as a stepping-stone to inspire others to tell their stories and histories.”