Real Stories of Hawai‘i for Middle-Graders

So many children’s books about Hawai‘i simply tell readers what they expect to hear, confirming general impressions they already have. But Hawai‘i is a unique and diverse place, and it’s rich in stories and storytellers. In these islands, people from many traditions grow up hearing and sharing each others’ experiences and stories. Here are some of those real stories of Hawai’i for middle-grade readers to enjoy.

Hero Stories

I’ll begin with a book about Hawaii’s all-time superhero, Duke Kahanamoku. SURFER OF THE CENTURY by Ellie Crowe tells the story of this legendary three-time winner of Olympic Gold. Although he was considered the fastest swimmer in the world, he also became known as the father of modern surfing, his true passion. It was “The Duke” who introduced the ancient Hawaiian sport to Australia and to the west and east coasts of the U.S. Despite his outstanding skills and accomplishments, Duke Kahanamoku had to deal with serious racial discrimination wherever he went. He responded to these challenges, too, with heroic humor, grace, and patience. Thus he became an example of character and aloha in Hawai‘i and the world. 

SAKAMOTO’S SWIM CLUB: How a Teacher Led and Unlikely Team to Victory by Julie Abery and Chris Sasaki.
THE THREE YEAR SWIM CLUB: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest by Julie Checkoway.
These two books  tell a much less well known but equally inspiring story of Olympic swimming heroes from Hawai‘i. An elementary science teacher in rural Maui in the 1930s saw his students playing in the sugar plantation‘s irrigation ditch one day and decided to organize them into a swim team. Soichi Sakamoto was not a coach or even swimmer himself. But he made a scientific study of the techniques and training methods of the world’s best swimmers The club’s dream was to participate in the 1940 Olympics.

They still had to train in the irrigation ditch. There were many excellent swimming pools and facilities in Hawaii, but in those days, only Caucasians were allowed to use them. Duke Kahanamoku’s example of aloha inspired  the team to overcome the racial barriers and bigotry they encountered at home and across the country.Soon they began winning every meet they entered, and took the national title. They were even set to fill most of the slots on the U.S. Olympic Team in 1940, realizing their dream.

Then the outbreak of World War II cancelled that event. At the 1948 Olympics, the first held in 12 years, the team’s goal finally became a reality. The star of that event was captain of the US swim team, native Hawaiian Bill Smith Jr., who had trained with Mr. Sakamoto. He was first of many boys and girls from the club to distinguish themselves in the sport and in other leadership roles.

The Many Stories of Graham Salisbury

Graham Salisbury has mined his “magical” childhood growing up on O‘ahu and Hawai‘i islands to become one of Hawai‘i’s most engaging storytellers. Readers on the younger side of middle grade will enjoy sharing the adventures and humorous predicaments of delightfully clueless Calvin Coconut. This series is based on Salisbury’s own elementary years on the windward side of O‘ahu. For older readers, there are BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA and ISLAND BOYZ, collections of short  stories about growing up in Hawai‘i and the things that experience teaches you.

But Salisbury is best known for his novels. The most famous, UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN, draws on the World War II experiences of his father’s family. The story centers on the challenges faced by two best friends in Kona— Tomi, a Japanese-American boy and Billy, a Caucasian– When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the Japanese are the enemy. This is the first of several award-winning novels in his Prisoners of Empire series, focusing on the World War II experiences of Japanese-Americans from Hawai‘i. The veterans he has interviewed for these stories have thanked him for telling their story by making him an honorary member of the famous 442nd “Go For Broke” regiment.

Salisbury has published 20 books set in Hawai‘i. In any of them , you can count on great writing, compelling characters, suspense, and surprising, humorous turns.

Hawai‘i Fantasy

Real stories can be told not just in nonfiction accounts and in realistic fiction, such as Salisbury’s, but also in fantasy and magical realism. Unless fantasy is  based in a believable, knowable world, it won’t engage readers. Hawai‘i, with all its myths and legends, was long overdue for some good middle grade fantasy that rings true. Then Lehua Parker delivered with her page-turning ONE BOY, NO WATER. In this first book of the Niuhi Shark Saga, Zadar is found on the reef as a baby.  A family of surfers and fishermen adopts him. Yet the boy is mysteriously allergic to water. Who is he really, and where did he come from? Someone must know, but they’re certainly not telling Zader. And he keeps having such frightening dreams.

“Auntie” Lehua Parker is thoroughly familiar both with Hawaiian myths and legends and with daily life and relationships in the islands. So she is able to weave the extraordinary and supernatural into an ordinary contemporary scene in ways that are sometimes startling and often humorous. Her characters are flawed, amusing, down-home, and unforgettable. As is her storytelling. Who is Zadar?   You may have to read the whole trilogy to find out.

 Some Illustrated Stories

The last three stories I recommend are told in picture books. The language and information level of these books, and particularly their themes, make them age-suitable for middle grade readers.

By Lois Ann Yamanaka and Ashley Lukashevsky

What does it mean to say that Hawaii is a special place? Like many children growing up in the islands, Claire wishes she could see a winter wonderland of snow. Her dad takes her to the top of Mauna Kea where there is plenty of the stuff. But it is not like she imagined. This is crusty old snow she can’t make anything out of. Later they go to the beach where they build a “snowman” out of sand and make sand angels. Claire begins to see that she can enjoy her own kind of winter surrounded by the sand, ocean and the beautiful mountains of her island. Back matter features the flora and fauna of the islands and shows the importance of the environment in Hawaiian culture.

by Heather Gale and Mika Song

Ancient Hawaiians recognized and respected a third gender.  They called it mahu (“in the middle”). Hawaiians believed that the mahu had spritual powers and a special role to play in the culture, But in modern times mahu has become a term of ridicule for gays, lesbians, and transgender people, HO‘ONANI, HULA WARRIOR, is based on the true story of a girl in a Hawaiian immersion school who saw herself as both boy and girl.  Ho‘onani wants to perform a male-style hula chant at a school event.  This meets with disapproval and resistance. Drawing strngth from the old ways, she persists. Ho‘onani becomes a strong leader who learns to accept herself and inspires others to be inclusive.

by Lee Cataluna and Cheyne Gallarde

The Hawaiian word Ohana means family, but family in a much broader sense than the usual use of that world. Your ohana can include your extended family and also people not related to you. Neighbors, friends, people of all backgrounds, anyone you welcome with mutual love and support can be your ohana. Playwright Lee Cataluna’s warm and humorous all-ages book celebrates this ohana and its underlying spirit of aloha in down-to earth detail.


Aloha, Everyone.  I hope readers of these books will enjoy getting to know Hawai‘i where people of many different backgrounds have learned over time to live together with respect and acceptance.




Diversity in MG Lit #35 April 2022

Here’s the roundup of some of the many diverse MG books on sale in April.  As always if I’ve missed an April title please drop a mention in the comments on this page.
The Not-so-uniform Life of Holly Mei is the debut MG novel of Christina Matula. It’s refreshing to see a character whose biracial identity (Taiwanese-Canadian) is not the focus of conflict in the novel. Another nice twist is the immigration story is not to North America but from there to Hong Kong. Kids will find plenty to root for as Holly Mei finds her way in a new city and school. This is the first of a planned three book series.
In Shabbat Sabotage by Emma Carlson Berne, Maya’s first time at sleep-away camp is enlivened by the mystery of who stole the kiddush cup and candlesticks they need to celebrate Shabbat.
Horse Country: Can’t be Tamed by Yamile Saied Méndez is a new series centered around a western horse ranch and the power of second chances. Great to see a horse series that does not feature wealthy East coast mean girls, but rather centers on the Hispanic contributions to the American west and the healing power of horses.
book cover Karthik DeliversKarthic Delivers by Sheela Chari has elements to delight a wide range of readers. Karthic trys to help his parents hold things together financially by delivering Indian groceries around his Boston neighborhood on his bike. He loves theater, admires fellow immigrant Leonard Bernstein, and is navigating a first crush with the aid of his earnest, even aspirational, to-do lists.
My Sister’s Big Fat Indian Wedding by Sajni Patel is a YA rom-com that should have plenty of appeal for older MG readers. What I liked the most about this story of finding love amid the busy events of a traditional Indian wedding was the many cousins who are on Zurika’s side every step of the way.
Graphic Novels
In the full color graphic novel Miss Quinces by Kat Fajardo, Sue/ Suyapa was hoping for a summer with her American friends at an art camp but her mother brings her to Honduras instead to be with family and have her Quinceñero ceremony. Sue is mortified but comes to appreciate them in the end. I appreciated the way the story embraced the spiritual elements of a the ceremony, rather than focusing entirely on the more glamorous party afterward. There is back matter with more information on the meaning of the Quinceñero traditions.
Messy Roots: a graphic memoir of a Wuhanese-American by Laura Gao is a YA graphic novel that may appeal to the older end of the MG spectrum. It’s a memoir about growing up as an immigrant queer Chinese-American in Texas. It’s rare to find a book that illuminates the experience of being both an immigrant and an LGBT community member. I’m hoping it will do well enough to usher in more intersectional stories.
Fantasy & SciFi & Historical
The Last Mapmaker by master storyteller Christina Soontornvat is going to appeal to fans of popular dragon series like Wings of Fire but also to kids who like maritime adventure stories in the mold of the Horatio Hornblower books.
Memorably set on a family estate in the Himalayas, Tamarind and the Star of Ishta by Jasbinder Bilan is a tale of  culture shock overcome and family secrets unraveled.
Young chapter books
Wednesday & Woof: Catastrophe by Sherri Winston is a new chapter book series featuring a spunky black main character with juvenile arthritis and her service dog  Woof. Together they solve the mystery of a neighbor’s missing cat. Short chapters, large type and plenty of color illustrations make this an inviting first series for a new reader.

WNDMG Wednesday – COMING OF AGE Interview

We Need Diverse MG
We Need Diverse MG Logo

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

COMING OF AGE Anthology Author Interview

We Need Diverse MG is so lucky this month … we get to feature an incredible new anthology called COMING OF AGE: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman)–which happens to be the number one release on Amazon for children’s Jewish fiction. We’re thrilled to have an “in” with one of the editors and a contributing author–because they’re both MUF contributors! Jonathan Rosen and Melissa Roske graciously agreed to interview with us. Moreover, because they’re so cool, we did half our interview in text and the other half on Zoom audio. So, enjoy our multi-media visit and get excited for COMING OF AGE before it appears on your bookshelves on April 19.

Book Cover for COMING OF AGE antholody features book title and starburst graphic around the text


About COMING OF AGE Anthology

Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories: As you might be able to deduce from the title, COMING OF AGE  is geared to a middle-grade audience. What does it mean to become an adult in your faith? Join thirteen diverse characters as they experience anxiety, doubt, and self-discovery while preparing for their b’nai mitzvah. And whether celebrating with a lavish party or in reception room A with an accordion player, the Jewish rite of passage remains the same. Filled with humor, hope, and history, there’s something in this anthology for every reader, regardless of their faith.

Meet Co-Editor Jonathan Rosen

WNDMG: Tell us the origin story for the book?

JR: Basically, the impetus was just wanting to get something with Jewish content for kids out. I’ve experienced someone telling me to make a book “less Jewish”. Or that Jewish books don’t sell well. I’ve spoken to many other Jewish authors who have told me about their similar experiences. Also, in my mind is how over the last ten years or so, antisemitism has been skyrocketing. So, wanted to do something that would feature Jewish characters, not just for Jewish kids to see themselves and their own experiences, but hopefully for non-Jewish kids to be able to read, and see how similar Jewish kids are. I know it’s cliché, but making a difference really does start with children. Lastly, one of the things that was important to me was to have a portion of the proceeds donated to Jewish organizations that fight antisemitism.

yellow road sign with word antisemitism lined through with red

WNDMG: How did your selection of authors come together?

JR: To start, it really was as simple as first reaching out to Jewish authors that I knew. I had done a couple of trips sponsored by PJ Library, so I got to meet several other Jewish authors as well. So, I reached out to who I knew. There were also people who were on my wishlist who I didn’t know. When I spoke to Henry Herz, my co-editor on this book, he suggested some people he knew, so between the two of us, we were able to get a great collection of authors. Fortunately, almost everyone that was asked, immediately agreed to participate. My biggest regret was after word got out, many other Jewish authors reached out to me to find out if there was room, because they wished to participate, but there wasn’t enough room. Perhaps, I’ll have to do another anthology. 😊

Centering on B’Nai Mitzvah

WNDMG: What direction/driving question did you give the authors for their stories?

JR: I didn’t want to give too much direction, because I wanted each one to write what they wanted. The only criteria was that it had to be centered around a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, since we were targeting Middle Grade readers, that’s kind of the biggest event in a middle grade Jewish kid’s life. But, otherwise, each author had the freedom to take the story where they saw fit. It was interesting to me that everyone wrote such different kinds of stories. We had memoirs, comedic stories, more serious, and even a few sci/fi which surprised me that more than one person thought along those lines.

Welcome to Melissa Roske

At this point in our conversation, we are joined by contributing author Melissa Roske, whose short story is a lovely exploration of a meeting of generations.

Connecting to Grandparents

WNDMG: Let’s talk about your stories—both are about connecting to grandparents but in very different ways. Melissa, what led you to write about connecting with Grandma Merle?

MR: Unlike Bella, the protagonist of my story, I was extremely close to my maternal grandmother, Molly. We even lived in the same New York apartment building, and she took care of me after school while my parents were at work. Most days we played “School,” where I was the teacher and Granny (that’s what I called her) was the pupil. I insisted on playing this game every single day, and Granny was kind enough to go along with it.

Author Melissa Roske with her grandmother posed in front of a decorated orange backdrop

Melissa and Granny

Like most Jewish grandmothers of her generation, Granny loved to feed people—especially me. She even kept a special drawer of chocolate in her kitchen for my sole enjoyment. Unfortunately, the chocolate drawer was the source of multiple cavities and a root canal. J Another thing about Granny, besides her tiny stature (she was 4’10”), was her impressive collection of flowered housedresses. I never saw her in anything else, except on the day of my Bat Mitzvah. She wore a fancy black-and-gold dress to please my mom.

Melissa Roske at her Bat Mitzvah standing with her parents

Melissa and Family

Earlier in her life, Granny was against the Viet Nam War and refused to pay her taxes in protest. My mom was convinced Granny would be arrested and begged her to pony up the funds. I was too young to witness this, but it says a lot about my grandmother’s character. She was little but fierce. Maybe that’s why I wrote a story about a girl who didn’t know her grandmother. I was blessed to know mine, and somehow wanted to pay it forward.

((Curious about more books with B’Nai Mitzvah themes? Read Melissa’s book list here.))

Time Travel and Grandparents

WNDMG: Jonathan – same question for you, but I need to add – is there a personal significance to the time travel watch? (I mean, I’m half expecting you to say you met Abraham Lincoln at your Bar Mitzvah, which was of course only 20 or so years ago)

JR: Twenty? More like fifteen! Actually, my kids always wonder why their ages keep increasing, but when I give them mine, it decreases every time they ask.

But as far as the story goes, I had figured that most of the stories would be more conventional stories, or memoir types, so I figured I’d do something different. Little did I know that I’d get other sci/fi submissions as well. But, the idea for me was always to show that the tradition is more important than the spectacle. That’s something that’s sometimes lost, because the tendency, at times, is to treat a Bar/Bat Mitzvah as big as a wedding, and there really have been times throughout history, where Jews had to do these things in secrecy because of certain regimes in power made it illegal for Jews to observe. So, through time travel, the main character kind of gets to experience that.

Jonathan Rosen Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall standing with his father behind him, a young boy and his smiling father wearing sunglasses

Jonathan Rosen Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall

Finding the Relatable

WNDMG: As authors, we all want our books to resonate with readers. Beyond that, we also have dreams about how exactly our words might become a part of our readers’ hearts. What do you each hope for with this book?

MR: My hope is that kids from all religious and ethnic backgrounds will find something relatable within the pages of Coming of Age. Yes, it’s a B’nai Mitzvah-themed book, written by Jewish authors and aimed primarily at Jewish readers. But you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the stories and themes each author presents. In my story, “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish,” I wanted to show readers that there’s more than one way to achieve a goal. In Bella’s case, it was having a Bat Mitzvah—something she thought was unobtainable because she wasn’t “Jewish enough.” Children often feel as if they’re not “enough.” Smart enough, fast enough, thin enough, popular enough… Here’s hoping they’ll see themselves in a more positive light, and acquire greater self-acceptance, after reading the stories in this book.

JR: Really, I just hope that the book as a whole entertains. Of course, there are things that I hope the reader takes away, but the overall purpose for me was to put out something with Jewish stories, and Jewish characters, which Jewish readers could identify with. And even non-Jewish readers could relate to seeing kids their age going through similar experiences to things that they experience in their lives.

The Jewish Equivalent to the Easter Egg

WNDMG: Authors often like to put small references in their books—maybe to a friend’s inside joke, a family tradition, or even a previous book. Ironically, they’re often referred to as “Easter eggs.” What would the Jewish equivalent phrase be? And did either of you put any in your stories?

So, What’s the Answer?

Curious about Jonathan and Melissa’s answer to that last question about the Jewish equivalent to the Easter egg?

We decided to have some fun and offer you all a mixed-media interview: blending text with audio for a true immersion into our conversation. So, to hear the answer,

Click here to listen to the rest of our interview:

We also talked about being Jewish in America, Jonathan and Melissa’s own Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and whether Melissa is going to be able to sell books out of her car at Time Square.

Thank you so much to Jonathan and Melissa for a wonderful chat and CONGRATULATIONS!

Release Date: April 19

COMING OF AGE: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman) releases April 19, 2022.  To buy a copy:



About the Authors

Author head shot, dark-haired man with beard

Jonathan Rosen

Jonathan Rosen is a transplanted New Yorker who now lives with his family and rescue dog, Parker, in sunny South Florida. He is proud to be of Mexican-American descent, although neither country has really been willing to accept responsibility. He is the author of the Spooky Middle Grade titles, Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies and its sequel, From Sunset till Sunrise, as well as the co-editor of the anthology of Jewish stories, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories, He is an administrator of the Middle Grade reading site,, and the co-host of the YouTube channel, Pop Culture Retro. He can also be found on his own site at

Author photo woman in dress sitting in bookstore signing books

Melissa Roske

Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge, 2017), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” will appear in the forthcoming Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman & Compay, 4/19/22). An active blogger for the popular MG website, From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-grade AuthorsMelissa lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on  TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.